The incoming EU agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, will have a vital role to play as EU wine and spirit producers seek to protect their names of origin beyond the EU. David Haworth reports on her first official remarks on that and other drinks industry-related issues as she addressed the European Parliament's agriculture committee.

The European Union's (EU) incoming agriculture Commissioner signalled a tough approach to New World wine and spirit producers who exploit traditional European geographic names on wine products after she takes up her post on November 1.

Mariann Fischer Boel, a former Danish agriculture minister, was referring to developments in EU wine labelling when making her initial appearance before the European Parliament's agriculture committee before she formally takes up her post.

When asked what she intended to do about products such as US-made "Malaga Wine", Mrs Fischer Boel gave her full backing to geographic indicators on wine, not least because she believes that the consumers are becoming more sophisticated these days and are curious to know where the product comes from.

With the subject of geographical indications likely to be tackled at the end of World Trade Organisation's (WTO) Doha round, Fischer Boel stressed that producers and the retail trade needed to have the right to insist on labels of origin.

Looking toward the immediate future, the agriculture commissioner-designate also said that the EU's sugar regime, so vital to the drinks industry, would be top of her hit list when she takes up her post. She said: "Doing nothing about sugar is not an option."

In a tough message right at the opening of her policy presentation, she said that in 40 years of the EU Common Agriculture Policy, sugar was the only area that had not been reformed. "In all that time, nothing has happened," she said, adding: "I think there is general agreement that the present regime (of high subsidies and price supports) should not be allowed to continue."

However, pressed by parliamentarians to be more specific about what she had in mind, the Commissioner-designate declined to give any detail ahead of the appeal hearing on EU subsidies currently being considered by the WTO. Its ruling, following a complaint by Australia, Brazil and Thailand, is not expected before March or April 2005.

"I can't say anything before the panel is heard. We'll have to test how far we can go later." That said, Mrs Fischer Boel conceded that in future there would be quota transfers of this key drinks ingredient between EU member countries.

She referred to her predecessor's communication on the sugar regime, which had been sent to the European Parliament and subsequently debated in the EU's agriculture Council of Ministers where there had been many divergent views.

At one stage in her presentation, Mrs Fischer Boel's insistence that she could not give any assurances at this stage about a future sugar regime infuriated a Spanish MEP. She said on this issue, "there is a great gap between expectations and taking a realistic view." When accused of being evasive, Mrs Fischer Boel said: "On sugar, we'll just have to wait and see."

The new commissioner was also bluntly questioned about her interest, financial or otherwise, in her husband's farming activities, which has led to claims that she could suffer from conflicts of interests regarding farm payments. The Commissioner-designate coolly dismissed the inquiry by saying that she had voluntarily put the whole issue before the Commission's legal service. The lawyers had concluded there was no conflict of interest - that it was possible to have a family member owning a farm or drink or food company while a Commissioner, but not derive any interest from it.

At the outset of the hearing and in conclusion, Mrs Fischer Boel made a vigorous defence for retaining a common agricultural policy rather than returning its spending programmes to national EU governments. "I'm completely opposed to any suggestion that the CAP might be re-nationalised. To put it very frankly: that would make no sense.

"Let us be absolutely clear that there is no alternative to the CAP. It remains a cornerstone of the Union and I have no intention of seeing it moved to the sidelines," she stressed.