European Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel is planning a massive global campaign to promote European wine, hoping to boost a sector suffering from overproduction and New World competition.
"In the project of wine sector reform, which I will present to EU member states on July 4, I will introduce propositions to launch a large-scale promotional campaign," Fischer Boel told AFP in an interview.
This will involve "very significant figures for promotion outside Europe... people will be very surprised," she added, days ahead of a meeting of European agriculture ministers in Mainz, Germany.
The campaign will help European exports at a time when the world market is increasing steadily, she said.
"EU wine is excellent, top quality (but) I think we can do better on export," she said. The promotion campaign will be carried out outside of Europe, where a public health campaign, also launched by the Commission, calls for alcohol to be drunk in moderation. European wines have increasingly seen their market share eroded by competition fromcheaper New World wines from countries and regions such as Australia, Chile, California and even China.
Such newcomers have exploded onto world markets in recent years, soaring from 1.7 percent of world exports in the early 1980s to over 20 percent now.
France and Italy are among the biggest European and world producers, with some 45 million hectolitres produced annually each, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. This is way ahead in production terms of other countries. The US output is less than half that of France and Australia's production is barely 10 million hectolitres. But the issue is not production capacity, it is securing markets for the wine.
The European Commission believes that deep reform of the sector is needed urgently. Without changes the EU could face lakes of surplus wine akin to butter mountains and other areas of overproduction seen in the past.
Last year Brussels presented plans for substantial reform of the wine sector, aimed at ending the chronic overproduction and decreasing the subsidies paid to viniculturists. In October the European Commission allocated 450 million euros (567 million dollars) to Europe's struggling wine producers to help them restructure or relocate their vineyards. This would include uprooting 400,000 hectares of vineyards to tackle the wine glut, 12 percent of the EU total, and distilling some of the 500 million euros worth of surplus wine produced for use as bio-fuel.
Fischer Boel defends the scheme as "a social tool" to help farmers in difficulty "leave with pride, not getting bankrupt." She also wants to launch promotional campaigns to encourage youngsters to eat more fruit and vegetables, but this time in Europe.
"I'm considering to introduce a scheme... to try to encourage young children to eat more fruit and vegetables because of the importance of avoiding obesity," she said. "We could give fruits and vegetables away free in schools, in the same way as the school milk scheme." The scheme would have to be co-financed by the Commission and EU member states and would require substantial sums of money, she said.
The programme will be included in the fruit and vegetable sector reforms which the 27 member states are expected to adopt in mid-June.
The reforms are aimed at making the sector more competitive and to improve crisis management, an increasing necessity as climate change takes hold.