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Winegrowers to meet Couchepin

Winegrowers want government action against cheap imports

(Keystone)

Swiss winegrowers are expected to meet the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, later this week to discuss concerns over cheap wine imports. The announcement comes after more than 100 demonstrators travelled to Bern in a fleet of tractors to demand that the government take urgent political measures to protect them.

A delegation of winegrowers received assurances from Manfred Bötsch, head of the Federal Office for Agriculture, that a meeting would take place with the economics minister on his return from Paris.

Demonstrators had earlier threatened to occupy the parliament building as well as camp outside if their demands for talks with Couchepin were turned down.

The protestors announced that they would resume their sit-in in front of the parliament building on Tuesday afternoon. "We're staying here," said Willy Cretegny, organiser of the demonstration.

Speaking on Swiss radio, Couchepin said he did not believe that Switzerland's wine industry was under threat. However he added that he understood the pain and hardship that winegrowers in certain regions had been experiencing thanks to overproduction over the past two years.

"These winegrowers are finding themselves in the position of an entrepreneur who can't find a market," he said. "But it is not up to the State to intervene every time a producer has a product which he cannot sell. The State cannot force people to drink their wine."

Katja Mäder, spokeswoman for the economics ministry, said the winegrowers would need to make a formal, written request for a meeting, which could take place as early as Thursday, she added.

The Swiss Winegrowers Association and the Swiss Farmers Association argue that a government decision to lift protective import tariffs has led to the Swiss market being flooded by foreign wines.

The demonstrators, who are mainly from the western part of Switzerland, say they are also hampered by the high cost of Swiss wine production. Swiss vintners are forced to produce according to strict environmental laws, which add to the costs, along with higher Swiss wages and social benefits.

Consumers like imports

The result is that Swiss consumers favour the cheaper imports. Figures for the 2000-2001 growing year show that the consumption of Swiss white wine fell by 4.7 per cent, compared with an increase of 7.4 per cent for imported whites.

Demonstrator Laurent Carr, of the Mont sur Rolle region of Lake Geneva, says winegrowers want the government to set quotas on imports. For every litre of Swiss wine, one litre of imported wine would be admitted, under their proposal. They are also calling for the introduction of a federal quota in Switzerland which would reduce production to one litre of wine for every square metre.

"We also want the government to take immediate steps to reduce the stocks of our wines," said Carr. It could do this by buying the surplus of Swiss wines, mainly white wine, for conversion into industrial alcohol.

Couchepin has already stated that the litre for a litre option is not credible.

Carr admits that a litre for a litre could be "a bit" restrictive, but says something has to be done about imports that are not properly controlled.

swissinfo with agencies

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