In context trajectories: participation in an international symposium in Paris

Last Thursday (6th October) I participated in an international symposium titled “Studying the social, ethical and economic impacts of GMPs. Implementation of the EU Directive 2015/412” which was organised by the Haut Conseil des Biotechnologies of France. I introduced our proposal to use four different cartographies that represent the different journeys of a kernel of maize in GM, chemically-intensive, certified organic and agroecological agri-food systems in Spain, as a systems-based approach to assessing socio-economic and ethical aspects related to GMOs.

Screenshot from 2016-10-10 12-14-24The symposium was divided in two parts: the morning was devoted to the analysis of the implication of the Directive 2015/412, that allows EU Member States to restrict or prohibit cultivation of GMOs in their territory (or parts of it) on grounds that were not previously admissible. This includes grounds relating to public policy, socio-economic impacts or the impossibility of achieving “coexistence”. This session included presentations on different national approaches (France, Germany and the Netherlands) as well as a presentation on the position of the European Commission and a former representative of the World Trade Organization. Practical difficulties for applying the Directive were discussed. It was a very interesting debate, and it was really illuminating to see how the different countries related the Directive to their own contexts in practical terms. It was concluded that despite difficulties, the Directive opens the possibility to debate concerns on GMOs on another level and complements traditional risk assessment focused on health and the environment with other tools and approaches.disyuntivaThe second part of the symposium was devoted to presenting different socio-economic analysis methods. First, the recommendation issued by the HCB to the French Government was presented. It is a very valuable document worth taking the time to read. Firstly it was explained that this methodology should be seen as an analytical method (rather than an assessment methodology), thus it aims to create the opportunity to reflect on the socio-economic process in order to work towards a decision, instead of placing the focus only on the final product. Secondly, it adopts the “in-context trajectory” perspective: this is to say that impacts will be analysed in comparison to impacts of other possible solutions for a given problem (this requires a transparent problem formulation) in a specific context. Social and political values that are implicitly and explicitly embedded in a given technology’s trajectory should be made transparent. Thirdly, it is important to account for the existing uncertainties related to GMOs, and thus avoid the “quantification myth” that creates false security by  only using quantitative indicators. Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that the socio-economic and ethical analysis is complementary to environmental and health risk assessment.

In addition to the HCB presenattion and our presentation on using comparative cartographies for sustainability assessment of GMOs (based on our paper published in Sustainability), Sylvain Aubry presented a recent study conducted by the Office Fédéral de l’Agriculture of Switzerland. The study analyses GM crops in Switzerland from the point of view of sustainability using a multi-criteria model. It was interesting to see different perspectives on methodologies on the table, and to discuss and compare their applicability and approaches. It was also rewarding to hear that more proposals are trying to adopt systems-based approaches that could take into account the full agri-food system and allow for comparison of different cultures of agriculture in order to foster the discussion on the different possible futures of agriculture.

The symposium ended with a round table which included members of the HCB and stakeholders outside this body. The discussion focused on advantages and limitations of ex-ante socio-economic analysis and the role of stakeholders. This stimulated a dynamic debate in which members of the public also participated.

The organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs: Press release by IFOAM Europe

IFOAM Europe just released the following press release.

The organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs

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BRUSSELS, 14 January 2016 – IFOAM EU has published a position paper on new genetic engineering techniques, ahead of the legal interpretation of the European Commission, expected by March 2016. The European organic food and farming sector considers that there are no legal or technical reasons to bypass the GMO legislation and to exempt these new breeding techniques from risk assessment and other legal requirements that apply to GMOs, and warns of severe economic consequences if some of these techniques are deregulated by the European Commission.

“New techniques bearing the same potential risks as the GMOs currently on the market should not be used in organic farming nor released into the environment, even less be exempted from risk assessment and traceability”, warns Christopher Stopes, IFOAM EU President.

“Any attempt to exempt these new genetic engineering techniques from risk assessment, traceability and labelling would create havoc on the food, feed and seeds markets, and would backfire like the attempt to introduce GMOs in Europe backfired 20 years ago”, adds Thomas Fertl, IFOAM EU Vice-President.

“The Commission could let consumers and the market decide, but the right to choose can only exist if there is a traceability and labelling system in place, like for currently labelled GMOs. Without traceability, it would be impossible to know if and where such products would be in the environment and in the food chain”, he adds.

“We need innovation in the plant breeding sector and new agronomic approaches that make the most of the diversity of plant genetic resources, but innovation does not have to resort to genetic engineering techniques that can lead to unpredictable side effects, and whose benefits will mainly go the companies that will market them”, adds Eric Gall, IFOAM EU Policy Manager.

The so-called “new plant breeding techniques” addressed in the position paper, such as cisgenesis or CRISPR/Cas, interfere at the sub-cellular and genomic level. Therefore, IFOAM EU considers that they would not be compatible with the principles of organic farming and that they should not be used in organic farming.

Deregulation of new breeding techniques would threaten the freedom of choice of breeders, farmers and consumers. If some of these new techniques are excluded from the scope of the legislation on GMOs, the organic sector would face a situation where genetic modification techniques excluded from organic farming could be released into the environment and the food chain while being exempt from any traceability and labelling requirements.

Read the new IFOAM EU position paper

For more information please contact:

Eric Gall, Policy Manager
+32 (0) 2 280 68 43 / +32 491 07 25 37, [email protected]

Laura Ullmann, Communications Manager
+32 (0)2 808 7991 / +32 (0) 486 88 52 12, [email protected]

Or visit www.ifoam-eu.org

Strategies for keeping feed free from GMOs

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Last week Amaranta and I attended a roundtable and a thematic workshop on GM-free feedstuff for organic and non-GM sectors organised by IFOAM EU in Ulm, Germany. The events gathered key stakeholders along the organic and GM-free feed value chain, from farmers to retailers, but also taking into account certifiers, researchers, policy-makers and advisors or consumers’ associations with the objective to find strategies for increasing the availability of GM-free feed in Europe. The activities are part of the project Keeping GMOs out of food coordinated by IFOAM EU aiming to strengthen the capacity of organic and conventional sectors in Europe to stay GMO-free.

Europe is highly dependent on inputs from third countries for fulfilling the internal demand for feedstock, a problem which is aggravated in the organic sector. In this sense, major changes in production are required (including the introduction or re-introduction of alternative and/or traditional protein sources and/or the reduction of livestock). In this context, I did a presentation on the situation in Spain, which is highly aggravated by the very difficult coexistence between GM and non-GM maize, which is almost impossible for organic maize in the GM maize producing areas (e.g. Catalonia and Aragon) (Binimelis, 2009). Besides the consequences for food sovereignty, the environmental impacts connected to the importation of millions of tonnes of soy and maize (among other crops) are also high, especially since agriculture – and the transport of commodities worldwide – is a key source of greenhouse emissions and a depletion of energy resources.

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I found it a very interesting and strategic initative to bring together stakeholders from both the organic and conventional production systems in order to share their main challenges for the production of GM free feed, but also for defining common strategies to face common problems, to increase availability of GM-free feed and to better communicate to the consumer which are the systems (and the values associated to them) that he or she is contributing to when choosing a product at the shop shelves. We had very interesting debates on aspects such as the pros and cons of establishing GMO-free labels (as exist in many European countries like France or Germany not only for the GM products themselves but also for the animal derivatives (e.g. eggs or milk) from animals fed with GMOs), and the possibility to harmonise the standards of the different national labels. Can the organic and conventional sector agree on a common strategy on labeling taking into account that the organic production is not using GMOs by definition? Would such a label induce the consumer to think that conventional products labelled as non-GM do not contain GMOs but organic products do?

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We also had enlightening discussions on the conventionalisation of organic agriculture and the risks this poses for losing the essence of its character by leaving aside values such as simplicity, localising production in both spacial and social terms, trust or transparency.

From a Network of Public Silos to International Food Speculation

In the last months we have spent many hours traveling across fields and towns throughout the grain production areas of Catalonia and Aragón in Spain. During this fieldwork we have come across many empty and abandoned silos and granaries, which got us wondering about the changes in agri/culture that have lead to their fall into disuse. These silos are typically huge concrete constructions (frequently being the highest buildings in the area) and are located in producer cooperatives or in villages. They are also now often adorned with magnificent stork nests.

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In the Spanish State, there is the Grupo de Investigación Silos y Graneros (a research group on silos and granaries) devoted to studying these constructions as rural historical heritage. This group promotes the restoration of these buildings as both an opportunity for creating new uses for them (e.g. as storage spaces for different products or as public equipment, business incubators or museums) and thus revitalising the local economy of rural areas.

The Spanish network of silos and granaries was created during the Franco dictatorship, with the aim of storing the grain harvest and thus, assuring its supply for the population and alleviating market irregularities by guaranteeing prices for farmers. A total of 663 silos and 275 granaries were built between 1945 and 1986. They were built to shorten the distances between farmers and storage facilities and between storage facilities and flour mills. At the beginning of their existence, these Spanish silos were only storing wheat, but later were also used to store other grains and legumes. During those initial years, a monopoly of silos and granaries was established with the idea that the Franco regime could control both grain production and consumption. Several years later, this collection of storage infrastructures was renamed to the National Network of Silos and Granaries and was reformed to manage the national stocks. The inclusion of Spain into the European Union in 1986 marked the beginning of the decline of these public silos and the transfer of their management responsibilities to regional governments.

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The current situation shows an almost complete abandonment of the public silos and granaries (with only 142 of them still active). The old network of public silos has now been replaced by the construction of new private silos and granaries owned by multinational companies operating within the international commodities market. As one of our interviewees explained, not only has the cereal been privatised, but also now the control of the information regarding grain stock levels. This has catalysed certain speculation processes dominated by an oligopoly of companies connected to investment and pension funds. According to Olivier de Schutter, the special rapporteur of the United Nations for the Right to Food, these companies are behind the speculative bubble that resulted in the devastating food crises of 2007/2008 and 2010/2011. In fact, international agricultural prices doubled during the period between 2002 and 2013.

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Price volatility relates to multiple complex factors, such as the rise in demand for resources from the so-called emerging economies and from changing political situations (both in the short term but also linked to long term factors such as climate change). Factors such as the interdependence of energy and agricultural prices, and the expansion of agrofuels, have made speculation by investment funds possible, which have increasingly started to shift their investments into the agricultural sector after the crisis in the real estate market.

As a response to this situation, the European Parliament agreed to reform the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (Directive 2004/39/EC) (MiFID) that regulates the financial services in the markets of the European Union. The new agreement aims, among other goals, to limit speculation on raw materials by investors and to impose sanctions for breaches. These aspects were positively viewed by a number of civil society organisations seeking to limit food speculation. However, many other aspects of the Directive remain highly criticised, such as the designation of member states as the competent bodies to set these limits, despite the threat of downward competition. It is also uncertain what the impact of these agreements will be if the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is approved. If this happens, it may involve a weakening of trade and investment regulations as well as a lifting of obstacles to food speculation by the financial sector.

These abandoned silos therefore tell us interesting stories about the shifting culture of agriculture over time and its increasing entanglement in the investment and speculation practices of international actors and markets.

De la red de silos y graneros a la especulación alimentaria

En los últimos meses, hemos pasado muchas horas recorriendo campos y pueblos de las zonas productoras de cereales en Cataluña y Aragón. En nuestros viajes hemos encontrado numerosos silos y graneros en desuso, ya abandonados. Inmensos y situados tanto en cooperativas de productores como enmedio de los pueblos, llaman la atención porque frecuentemente son los edificios más altos de la zona, a menudo poblados con numeros nidos de cigüeñas.

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En el Estado español existe el Grupo de Investigación Silos y Graneros, dedicado al estudio de los silos y graneros como patrimonio histórico rural, y a la promoción de su rehabilitación como oportunidad para revitalizar la economía de zonas rurales, dándoles nuevos usos: desde el almacenamiento de otros bienes pasando por equipamientos públicos, viveros de empresas, museos, etc…

La red de silos y graneros fué creada con el objetivo de almacenar las cosechas de grano para asegurar el abastecimiento de la población y a paliar la irregularidad de los mercados, garantizando el precio a los agricultores. Se construyeron en todo el país 663 silos y 275 graneros desde el año 1945 hasta el 1986, con la intención de que los agricultores tuvieran que desplazarse poco y al mismo tiempo, los silos y graneros estuvieran cerca de las fábricas harineras. En un principio guardaban únicamente trigo aunque después también se usaron para otros cereales y legumbres. Con la idea de que el régimen controlara la producción y el consumo, se estableció entonces un monopolio que tomaría la forma de Red Nacional de Silos y Graneros, que además gestionaba la reserva de almacenamiento nacional. La llegada de la CEE marcó el inicio del abandono de la actividad de almacenamiento y el traspaso a manos de las comunidades autónomas.

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En el otro extremo, la situación en la que nos encontramos hoy es el casi total desmantelamiento de los graneros o silos públicos (en la actualidad quedan 142 silos y graneros en uso) y su sustitución por silos y graneros establecidos por empresas multinacionales que operan en el mercado internacional de commodities. Por lo tanto, tal y como nos contaba uno de los entrevistados del proyecto hace unos meses, no sólo se ha privatizado el cereal, el stock, sino también el control de la información de cuánto grano hay. Esto ha catalizado los procesos de especulación, hoy en manos de un oligopolio de empresas relacionadas con los fondos de inversión y que, según el relator especial de las Naciones Unidas para el Derecho a la Alimentación, Olivier de Schutter, se encuentran detrás de la burbuja especulativa que dió lugar a las devastadoras crisis alimentarias de los años 2007/2008 y 2010/2011. Como resultado, en el período entre 2002 y 2013 los precios agrícolas internacionales se doblaron.

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Si bién es cierto que la volatilidad de precios responde a una multidud de factores complejos como el incremento de la demanda de recursos en las llamadas economías emergentes o las situaciones climáticas (tanto a corto término como al cambio climático), el hecho de que precios de la energía y de los productos agrícolas sean interdependientes entre ellos y la difusión de los agrocombustibles ha hecho que numerosos fondos de inversión hayan encontrado un filón para especular, abandonando progresivamente el sector inmobiliario hacia el mercado de alimentos.

Como respuesta a esta situación, el Parlamento Europeo acordó en 2014 reformar la Directiva de Mercados de Instrumentos Financieros (MiFID), que regula los servicios financieros en los mercados de la Unión Europea. Los acuerdos contemplan límites en la especulación con materias primas por parte de los inversores y la aplicación de sanciones, aspectos que fueron valorados como una victoria por parte de las numerosas organizaciones de la sociedad civil que hace años que reclaman que se ponga coto a la especulación alimentaria. Sin embargo, muchos de los otros aspectos siguen siendo fuertemente criticados, como el hecho de que sean finalmente los estados quienes establezcan estos límites y no una normativa europea común, con el riesgo de que haya una regulación nacional «a la baja». Tampoco queda claro qué pasará en el futuro con estos acuerdos, si finalmente se llegara a aprobar el TTIP (Tratado de Libre Comercio e Inversiones), el cuál involucraría el debilitamiento de las regulaciones y los obstáculos a la excesiva especulación por parte del sector financiero.

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Divide y vencerás: Reflexiones sobre la nueva Directiva Europea sobre OMGs

Photo author: lewishamdreamer - CC license

Photo author: lewishamdreamer – CC license

La semana pasada saltó a los medios de comunicación la noticia de que Escocia está a punto de prohibir los Organismos Modificados Genéticamente (OMGs). Esta prohibición, si acaba materializándose, sería la primera que se realiza después de la entrada en vigor de la nueva legislación europea en materia de transgénicos, el pasado mes de Abril de 2015. Hemos considerado oportuno hacer un repaso de los principales cambios legislativos y algunas reflexiones y apuntes generales sobre las implicaciones que podría tener la nueva directiva.

Los antecedentes del cambio legislativo nos remontan a una situación institucional Europea en la que se reflejaba una dilatada controversia social que estas biotecnologías generan. Durante muchos años, los Estados Miembro han mantenido opiniones antagónicas sobre el cultivo de los OMGs en sus territorios nacionales. Por ejemplo Austria, Hungría, Grecia, Luxemburgo, Alemania y Francia han utilizado todos una cláusula existente en la legislación anterior para implementar prohibiciones nacionales sobre el cultivo y la comercialización de los OMGs (aunque Alemania autorizó la comercialización de una patata transgénica para usos industriales que fue retirada poco después). A su vez, países como el Estado español (el país con más hectáreas cultivadas de OMGs en Europa, con diferencia), República Checa, Eslovaquia, Portugal, Rumanía y Polonia han apostado por el uso de estas biotecnologías y en sus territorios se cultivan y se comercializan estos cultivos. Ante el intenso debate y la polarización de los Estados Miembros, el cambio de legislación vino motivado para dar salida, de alguna forma, al atolladero legal en que se encontraba el conjunto de países de la UE, en el que las aprobaciones de transgénicos a nivel Europeo eran continuamente cuestionadas y no contaban con el apoyo de algunos de los Estados Miembros.

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A continuación destacamos los principales aspectos de la nueva directiva y los cambios que ha conllevado:

  • Hay que puntualizar que la nueva legislación sólo afecta al cultivo de OMGs, no a su importación o a sus movimientos dentro de la Unión Europea, aunque ya hay un borrador de una directiva europea sobre importaciones paralela a la de cultivo en circulación. Esto significa que la nueva Directiva tampoco afecta a los campos experimentales o a utilización confinada de OMGs.
  • La nueva directiva permite a los estados prohibir o, mejor dicho, restringir lo que denominan un ‘evento’ (es decir, la modificación genética concreta para la que se busca la aprobación) amparándose, entre otros aspectos, en criterios socio-económicos para proteger los productos no-OMG (e.g porque chocan con sus objetivos en materia de política agraria o ambiental, etc…). Es importante destacar que, bajo la anterior legislación, no era posible utilizar este tipo de criterios para justificar una prohibición.
  • La directiva establece un procedimiento con dos pasos: en un primer momento, un estado puede solicitar ante la Comisión ser excluido del ámbito de aplicación de la autorización. En caso de que el solicitante de los permisos para la venta de la modificación o ‘evento’ (por ejemplo, una empresa de biotecnología) no lo acepte, el estado en cuestión deberá justificar su solicitud de ser excluido basándose en los motivos descritos anteriormente siempre y cuando sea de forma “razonada, proporcional y no discriminatoria”.
  • El Parlamento Europeo veía la nueva directiva como una oportunidad para establecer medidas de coexistencia obligatorias (entre cultivos transgénicos y no transgénicos) para los países adoptantes de OMGs. Sin embargo, esta propuesta fue finalmente desestimada y la directiva sólo menciona vagamente que se deberán establecer ciertas medidas de coexistencia – no se establecen cuáles – en las áreas fronterizas entre un país dónde esté autorizado el cultivo y el país o entre países vecinos en donde su cultivo esté restringido o prohibido.
  • Este procedimiento sólo puede iniciarse una vez el ‘evento’ ha sido evaluado positivamente siguiendo la evaluación de riesgo habitual en la UE que es estrictamente restringida a aspectos cuantificables del ‘riesgo’ y que es la única evaluación considerada como propiamente “científica”. Como esta aproximación excluye e ignora todo lo relativo a las dimensiones sociales, políticas y éticas de los cultivos transgénicos, éstas son consideradas como “otros aspectos a tener en cuenta”, pero quedan, en realidad, al margen de la evaluación formal a nivel europeo.

La principal implicación de este cambio legislativo es que mientras que hay países que se acogerán a la prohibición, todo apunta a que seguramente se acelerarán los procesos de adopción en otros, como el Estado español, polarizando aún más el mapa de cultivo de OMGs en Europa, particularizando y dividiendo la toma de decisiones sobre la implantación de los cultivos OMGs en Europa y debilitando así cualquier iniciativa colectiva de afrontar políticamente, más allá del ámbito de los estados-nación, una de las grandes controversias tecnocientíficas de este siglo.

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Además, el marco legal que establece la directiva es poco robusto, y quedan muchas incógnitas en relación a las implicaciones prácticas de su implementación: ¿Podrán las empresas biotecnológicas demandar a un Estado Miembro (o a una región concreta, como en el caso de Escocia) que quiera prohibir el cultivo de un evento MG, por ejemplo, con el beneplácito de la OMC? ¿Podrá una región hacer frente a una demanda judicial por parte de una empresa biotecnológica si persiste en su voluntad de prohibición? ¿Qué papel podrían jugar los tribunales de arbitraje que se están negociando en el Tratado Transatlántico para el Comercio y la Inversión, conocido en inglés como TTIP, cuando no exista acuerdo entre el país o la región que quiera restringir o prohibir un OMGs y la empresa que solicita su autorización?

Finalmente, tampoco queda claro qué justificaciones -y qué tipos de conocimiento y evidencias- serán consideradas como relevantes, válidas y suficientes para respaldar una prohibición cuando existen tan pocos datos empíricos sobre las consecuencias sociales y económicas de los OMGs, especialmente en los países del llamado Norte Global. En este sentido, una vez más, nos parece conveniente resaltar la importancia de lo que el proyecto Agri/Cultures trata de hacer, es decir, de generar y visualizar conocimiento empírico útil y relevante socialmente, que permita la evaluación de aspectos socio-económicos y éticos de los OMGs con el objetivo de avanzar hacia una toma de decisiones más robusta, más inclusiva, más responsable, más holística, más democrática y sobretodo que incorpore las preocupaciones socio-ecológicas manifestadas por amplios sectores de las sociedad.

Black spring for bees: Press note by Bee Life

Our project partners Bee Life, the European Beekeeping Coordination just released the following press release.

Brussels, 20.03.2015

Black spring for bees: National governments blocking appropriate risk assessment of pesticides on bees

On the 20th of March, while spring is coming, representatives from the national ministries and from the European Commission met in Brussels at the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health[1]. Since 2013, they have been negotiating on the EFSA Guidance[2], the most appropriated science-based protocol enabling to keep out of the market toxic pesticides to bees and to other pollinators. While the Commission (DG SANTE) has pushed for the Guidance implementation, the position of national governments has continued unclear and not transparent, leading to a deadlock of the decision. Bee Life European Beekeeping Coordination urges the national governments to say YES to the EFSA Guidance on bees.

The new EU legislative framework on pesticides[3] obliges the pesticide industry to furnish much more data on bee toxicology when applying for an active substance or formulation.

With the purpose to enforce in an adequate and harmonized way the EU law, the EFSA, following the European Commission mandate, has published the Guidance on bees. This Guidance is the result of an independent and scientific work. If approved by member states, this scientific methodology would enable risk evaluators to assess properly the set of data and application dossier provided by the pesticide industry. Such methodology would support political decision-making on pesticides at EU and national level.

Despite the efforts of the European Commission (DG SANTE) to take better into account the risks of pesticides to pollinators, member states continue blocking the approval of the EFSA Guidance. Based on the fact that the Guidance would improve our understanding of the risks and effects of pesticides on pollinators and on the environment, and that it would offer a harmonized interpretation of the risks in the EU, Bee Life questions the fact of such blockage by national governments.

Bee Life urges member states to take a decision in favor of quality of life and public health. We urge member states to keep a critical eye on the arguments and pressure of the agrochemical industry that tries in an insidious way to oppose to the EFSA Guidance.

Bee Life will continue extremely active in following this dossier and will work until the European law on the risks of pesticides to pollinators is properly implemented. This means until the EFSA Guidance is approved and enforced.

Francesco Panella, president of Bee Life said: “It is sad to see that science is everywhere within the European legal logic until it meets the economic interests of member states or pesticide industry. Besides, this blocking shows a worrying fact: member states do not trust the scientific competence of the EFSA. For Bee Life, the sooner the Guidance is implemented, the earlier the marketing of pesticides toxic for pollinators will be avoided. The support of every citizen will be essential to maintain pollinators on European territory and to ensure the quality of life all of us.”

EN VERSION: http://bee-life.eu/en/article/82/

FR: VERSION: http://bee-life.eu/fr/article/82/

(1) Agendas et minutes of the SCOFCAH meetings in the Brussels http://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/standing_committees/sc_phytopharmaceuticals/index_en.htm

(2)  EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) Guidance on risk assessment of pesticides on bees – http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/3295.htm

(3) Regulation 1107/2009 – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32009R1107

Regulation (UE) n ° 283/2013 – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32013R028

Regulation (UE) n °284/2013 – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32013R0284