At the beginning of March 2014, the Committee of European Sugar Users (CIUS) called for the adoption of “adequate measures to avoid sugar shortages and guarantee a sufficient stock level”. It argued that there was “an inherent supply deficit in the current sugar system”, since EU production quotas limited domestic sugar production from own-beet supplies to 80% of consumption needs, with the remainder supplied from imports.
CIUS, whose members “purchase and use almost 70% of the European annual consumption of sugar”, maintains that since 2009 imports have been insufficient to meet user needs, creating shortages that have increased the prices paid by sugar users. This is seen as potentially undermining “the competitiveness of the European sugar-using food and drink sector”.
While CIUS welcomes the abolition of EU sugar production quotas in 2017, it argues that “a gradual decrease in import protection” is required, as economic recovery takes hold. CIUS has called for the introduction of an import tendering system to provide “a transparent, market-based” mechanism for regulating imports and improving stock levels. CIUS has further called for any sugar placed on the market to be “available in equal amounts to each sector, beet, or cane, and at zero duty”.
According to CIUS, market management measures over the past 3 years have made “over one million tons of additional sugar available” annually, but says there are concerns that the CXL import quotas (granted to exporters that lost out as countries such as Finland, Portugal, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU) are only being 50% utilised. Equally, CIUS maintains that the level of “EPA/EBA preferential imports has always been overestimated”.
The UK-based cane sugar refiner Tate & Lyle has joined the debate, maintaining that “the CXL duty borne by the European sugar refiners is outdated and unfair,” and that the €98/tonne duty makes CXL imports a “significantly more expensive” source of raw cane sugar imports.
The price concerns expressed by the European sugar users will not have been eased by the imposition in February 2014 of fines totalling €280 million imposed on the three largest German sugar companies, Südzucker, Nordzucker and Pfeiffer & Langen, for “colluding to limit the distribution of sugar in Germany up to 2009”. According to the president of the German Federal Cartel Office, “the aim of the agreements… was to achieve the highest possible prices for their sugar.” The three companies “agreed to settle with the antitrust authority”.
In an unrelated development, an EC investigation into the same companies for anti-competitive practices was dropped in early February 2014. An EC spokesperson said that initial suspicions of “the existence of price and volume arrangements between the sugar producers in various EU countries was not conclusively confirmed by the information gathered on the spot.” However, the EC did not exclude the possibility of “[reinvestigating] the sugar sector at a later stage on the basis of new elements”.
While CIUS maintains that EU sugar consumption will recover in the short term as the economic recovery takes hold, longer-term EU projections suggest that a significant reduction in EU sugar consumption is pending (see Agritrade article ‘ More limited market prospects projected for sugar imports beyond 2017’, 3 March 2014). The decline in consumption of sugar is likely to be even more pronounced if recent campaigns to reduce the sugar content of processed food products are effective.
Against this background, any moves to lower tariffs on imports from non-preferred suppliers in response to transitional supply problems would be likely to create a situation of even more intensified competition for ACP sugar exporters post-October 2017. This suggests that, from an ACP perspective, great care should be taken with regard to the measures put in place to deal with what can be seen as essentially transitional problems.
More broadly, the findings of the German Federal Cartel Office with regard to the practices of three major sugar companies – which together account for 10.3 million tonnes of EU sugar output (approximately half of total EU output) and 57 processing plants spread across 12 EU member states – highlight the importance of proper regulation of relationships along sugar supply chains after quota abolition, given the price and market-fixing practices of major sugar companies found by the German competition authorities.