Interview with General Secretary of AREPO network, Mr. Laurent Gomez

Some days ago, Agrotypos spoke with Greek agronomist Mr. Piteris about the recent meeting of the AREPO network. During this meeting at Strasbourg, AREPO’s members, european regions and producers’ associations, declared their opposition to a “secret list” of Geographical Indication products (GIs), conducted by the European Union to be included in the negotiations taking place with USA in the TTIP trade deal framework. Agrotypos spoke with General Secretary of the Arepo Network, Mr. Laurent Gomez and asked him about the list, as well as other interesting matters concerning the AREPO network and european agri-food products.

1. Do you think that the TTIP negotiations are being held under secrecy; What could be the possible dangers for European GI products if the agreement proceeds in its current form?
At least for the general public, TTIP negotiations are being held under a “normal” secrecy, a “classic” secrecy in this type of exercise. Negotiations cannot be held in an open and transparent way because if not, negotiators do not have the opportunity to change their views. The problem is more annoying overlooked the MEPs. European deputies should have a more direct and open access to the documents because they are the representatives of the European people. Dangers for the European GI products is that the European negotiators abandon all or part of the GI interests against something else in the final agreement, or simply, that the European negotiators abandon a part of the GI sector. We know that the European commission wants to discuss about GIs at the end of the negotiation because GIs are one of the most difficult points in the agreement.

2. Which are the countries that are mostly affected by the TTIP negotiations concerning GI products? Do you think that Greece is one of them?
Of course, the most affected countries concerning GI products are the leaders of the sector. And of course, Greece is one of them. Greece arrives in 5th position on 28 member states just behind Italy, France, Spain and Portugal but before Germany by example. And Greece products have a great reputation with a high level of quality and, it’s very important, a very high level of “dream”, “romanticism”, evocation of culture, pleasure, travel… So, of course, temptation is important to copy the Greek origin because they have a great value for the business. Then what also matters a lot is the power of the diaspora of each country or to protect and import the products of his own country of origin in the USA, or on the contrary to produce directly in the USA the same type of product. Never forget that the United States is a new country, whose population is composed in a very large part of recent immigrant population.

3. Recently you had an annual meeting in Strasbourg. What was the verdict of this meeting as far as GI products are concerned? How can your network put pressure on European institutions in order to protect GI products?
Our annual meeting is fully oriented on the GI’s policies. We work on CAP and EAFRD measures, the quality and promotion policies, the organic products, the local and mountain products as mention of quality, the Horizon 2020 research and innovation policy. This last topic is now the most pregnant. It is extremely important to do the demonstration that GI’s are not only products of tradition but also innovating products. Producers want also work and live in modernity. We also need public money of the CAP to help innovation in this sector. AREPO always chooses the way of proposition. We are not a syndicate, a political corporation. We prefer propose different constructive options. This is why we are now a key partner of the European Commission and the European Parliament. There are other producer corporations to hold a more defensive attitude.

4. We have seen that there is a list that has been created by the EU Commission that includes only 201 out of 1305 GI patented products. EU claims that this list has been given by the ministries of agriculture of the member states. Were you informed by the European Union of this list before it sees the light of publicity?
No, it has been a surprise for us. Generally we are well informed by our network and we can obtain the draft document by different ways. But it’s true that in this case, the leader is not the DG Agri. So we haven’t got the same entrance and the same habits. And, as we are a network of regions, our organization works directly with Brussels institutions. We use some other ways to know what happens in the European Council but the Member states are not our key partners.

5. Which are the countries that participate in your network? Are there any other countries that will join your network in the near future? Can you also give us some names of the most important agricultural associations that participate in the AREPO network?
AREPO is a network of regional authorities and producer associations that deals with products of origin. AREPO aims to promote and defend the interests of producers and consumers of European regions involved in the valorization of quality food products. AREPO was established in May 2004 in Bordeaux by 16 regions from six European countries, and it now represents 27 European regions from 8 countries and over 400 associations of producers for over 40% of European GIs. Crete is a full member of AREPO. Of course, in the context of Member states with a very high level of decentralization such as Germany, Italy or Spain, some of our members have a high political influence as Bavaria, Lombardy, Catalonia… But all our member regions have a rural economy turned towards GIs. AREPO is opened to all the regions and their producers who want join us.

6. We know that Crete is the only region of Greece that is a member of your network. Is it possible that you will hold one of your annual meetings in Greece in the near future?
Indeed, Crete is today our only one member in Greece but the other ones are very welcome. You can easily imagine that all our members are waiting for a general assembly in Crete! I’m sure we would have a very good audience from all our regions… During the meeting in Strasbourg, the Vice-President Mrs Theano Vrentzou-Skordalaki proposed to welcome us in Crete in 2017.

7. Several times in big negotiations between EU and other countries ( such as USA and Canada) we have noticed that northern countries tend to downgrade the importance of European GI products of the “southerners” in order to promote their financial interests in other sectors. Do you agree with this opinion and what should be done in order to avoid this European “civil war”of interests?
Probably, you’re right; there is a question of financial interests from the part of the northern countries. But we have also to consider a strong difference in the cultural approach. In the northern Europe, quality product is simply a safe product, a healthy product. It’s difficult for them to understand the Southern approach of the quality: typicality, taste, evocation, pleasure and also origin. In summary, the Southern Europe can eat for the pleasure when the Northern eat only because it’s a physiological need. Ex-Commissioner Fischer-Boel thought and said that all the European agro-food products were quality because they were safe. And in a sense, we’ve got the same misunderstanding with the North America. But, the good news is that the minds are changing. If USA and Northern Europe find a new economic interest in developing and promoting they own GIs, we can win the battle. So we work for it with the producers. We organize conferences, showrooms, meetings… as during Expo Milano 2015. We have to do the demonstration that GIs are not protectionism and that they can develop their own GIs.

8. Are there any recent developments as far as the european legal framework of the GI products is concerned? Do you have any proposals to make to the EU institutions towards the direction of improving the protection of European agricultural products?
The main opened file is the simplification. Some people are worried about the possibility of fusion PGI – PDO in a unique label. I think that this point is not on the table. We’ve just finished more than 10 years of discussions around the reform of the European quality schemes and the fusion PDO-PGI has been rejected. Now, the file of the simplification is mainly the question of the multiple regulations for wines, spirits and alcoholic drinks and the incoherencies between the regulations. Of course, there are several issues for the wine and spirit sectors. For the food Gi’s, innovation, EAFRD, local food systems and TTIP are now the mains files. And we also open the discussion with the EC on the non-food GIs, namely the GI for the industrial and handcrafted products as pottery, glassware, fabrics, knives and other traditional products.


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