(Reuters) - The EU stood firm today in the face of Russian threats to ban meat imports from the bloc next year due to health concerns and bypass Brussels with bilateral deals.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern yesterday rejected Russian pressure on Ireland to negotiate such a one-to-one deal to protect Irish beef sales to the country from next month.
Moscow has threatened to ban EU meat imports from January 1st, citing concerns over animal health in Bulgaria and Romania, set to become full EU members at the start of 2007.
It had also refuses to lift a year-old ban on meat imports from Poland. A blanket Russian ban on imports of EU meat, dairy and fish products would hit some в'¬1.7 billion in annual trade, reports Trend.
Poland said today it hoped to resolve the dispute within a week. "I would like this issue to be resolved by the time the (agriculture) council meets on December 21st," President Lech Kaczynski told a news conference after an EU summit in Brussels.
He said final proposals had been submitted in contacts with the Finnish EU presidency but gave no details. Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said there was no result yet, but his country's presidency had two weeks still to run.
But with no new meetings scheduled next week between Moscow and central European Union authorities to resolve the impasse, the chances of the EU avoiding some kind of Russian ban, at least for a short time, are fading fast.
Earlier today, the head of Russia's animal and plant health watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor, Sergei Dankvert, said his agency had sent proposals to eight EU major meat exporter countries on bilateral trade agreements: Ireland, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.
But no bilateral deals had yet been signed, Dankvert said, adding that Rosselkhoznadzor would send letters to all other EU member states today or tomorrow.
"If there are delays on meat imports from January 1st, it won't be our fault," Mr Dankvert said.
Asked yesterday if an Irish-Russian deal was something that the Taoiseach would support, Mr Ahern said in Brussels: "No, it's not. This will be dealt with as a European matter. The Commission will carry out the negotiations and deal with the Russians on this. We support that.
"It doesn't become a big issue for us for a few months, but I hope that this will be resolved very quickly," he told The Irish Times.
Bilateral meat deals would side-step the European Commission which negotiates trade deals for the EU's 25 member countries.
The Commission views any bilateral deal with Russia as illegal. "The Commission is concerned about the Russians trying to pick off the member states one by one with bilateral agreements," one EU diplomat said.
"We're assuming that there will be a short-lived ban," he said. "This is better sorted out centrally by the Commission and not by a patchwork of bilateral deals."