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Belgian Farmer: Selling Pears to Russia Was a Perfect Match

Belgian Farmer: Selling Pears To Russia Was A Perfect Match
On December 15th, 2016, EU leaders decided to prolong economic sanctions against Russia for 6 more months. Pressured by Germany and France, 26 other EU states supported the sanctions without discussing them. However, it’s not the EU’s political elite, but Europe’s farmers and exporters who are paying the price of the restrictions.

Kersbeek-Miskom is a small community in the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant. If you travel here by car, you can see thousands of fruit trees: the area is famous for its delicious pears. 

Luc Borgugnons and his wife take care of a 30-hectare family pear garden. Luc has been working here since 1979.

Even though he runs a small Belgian business, just like his neighbors Luc employs people from other EU member states.

With a staff of less than 40 people working in peak months, the Borgugnons farm sells over one million kilos of pears annually. After refrigerated trucks pick up the produce in 40-kilogram containers, the pears are being shipped to Germany, France, Holland, China and Spain, as well as to other countries – everywhere except Russia. 

Things weren’t always like that. In fact, a few years ago the Borgugnons farm other local businesses grew significantly because it was the Russian market that demanded a particular kind of fruit, which is being produced here in Flemish Brabant – the Conference pear.
Luc says it was a perfect match – Russians loved the Conference pears, his farm had great conditions for growing them and providing them in massive quantities.

​The situation flipped from idyllic to critical in just a few months. In 2014 the EU imposed sanctions on Russia over the situation in Ukraine. Moscow retaliated by banning some of Europe’s food exports, including fruit from Belgium. Luc Borgugnon says no one expected that.

The sanctions were imposed two weeks before the harvest, so it caused panic, because the pears were on the trees and we discovered that we cannot sell 30% of them to Russia anymore. So the impact was significant because we didn’t know what to do with our produce. 

EU officials set aside 125 million euros to pay farmers for their unsold produce affected by the Russian embargo. For Luc the subsidy meant that he could leave about 10% of his pears on the trees. 

Over the past two and a half years Belgian exporters found different markets for their produce and the embargo problem is now not as bad as it used to be. 

Europe is currently split over the issue of sanctions. Many politicians in Italy, Greece, Spain are calling for an end to restrictive measures, while Angela Merkel of Germany and Francois Hollande of France would rather see punitive measures remain in place.

However, with the growing popularity of the pro-Russian politicians in Western Europe, and with Donald Trump’s victory in the US, things may change.

If Trump decides to reset relations with Russia, Luc says that the EU and Belgium may eventually do the same:
Belgium quickly follows what happens in Europe. I don’t know what Europe is going to do if Trump and Putin establish better contacts, in that case I think Europe will have to follow to some degree. Europe will not be able to stand on its own at the moment: it has always been an ally of the US, and if the US changes its game, Europe will have to follow.

Despite the years of embargo, Belgian exporters are keeping in touch with their partners in Moscow. If EU decides to lift its sanctions and Russians do the same in response, Belgian farmers are ready to resume shipments to Russia. However, Luc doubts that the market share will be the same:

Of course, the question is, whether we will be able to sell 30% again, I’m not sure about it, maybe we’ll be selling less than that, but we found a couple of different markets instead, so we are certainly prepared to go to Russian market, and are hoping to sell a lot of pears there.

The EU's restrictive financial measures target entire sectors of the Russian economy, including banking, energy and defense. Besides that, some 149 Russian citizens are banned from entering Europe.

In the end of 2016 the EU decided to continue punishing Russia by prolonging the sanctions until July 31st, 2017.

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