Euronews | 30 January 2024
EU-Mercosur trade talks still alive, Brussels says in rebuke to France’s Macron
By Mared Gwyn Jones & Shona Murray
The European Commission assured on Tuesday that talks on the EU-Mercosur trade agreement continue after a French official claimed President Emmanuel Macron had convinced the bloc’s executive to bury the deal.
"The discussions continue, and the EU continues to pursue its goal of reaching an agreement that respects (...) sensitivities, particularly in the agricultural sector," the EU executive’s lead spokesperson told reporters.
The remarks aimed to dispel claims made by an Élysée official that Macron, a fierce opponent of the deal, had personally convinced Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen to order negotiators to halt talks.
It came as farmers ordered a siege of Paris as part of sweeping protests against Macron’s government. Among French farmers’ grievances are the EU’s free trade deals with third countries that they say flood Europe’s markets with cheap, low-quality produce, squeezing their profits.
"The European Commission has understood that it is impossible to reach a conclusion in this context. I think it has seen the situation in France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, in Europe," the French government official said on Monday referring to farmers’ protests that have erupted across the continent.
"We understand that it (the Commission) has instructed its negotiators to put an end to the negotiating sessions in Brazil," the official added.
But the EU executive reassured that negotiations on the deal - which would open up free trade between the EU and the South American trade bloc covering Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay - were "in progress" and had taken place as recently as last week.
"I remind that it’s the Commission that negotiates free-trade agreements based on a mandate received by the member states," the EU executive’s spokesperson for agriculture and trade said.
"It’s the Commission and the Commission only," he added.
The bloc has been in trade talks with Mercosur for more than two decades. A provisional agreement reached in 2019 has been held up, partly due to French concerns about the impact of tariff-free imports of agri-food products on French farmers.
A farmer demonstrating in neighbouring Belgium on Tuesday told Euronews that he felt Europeans were being "forced to not produce at home but to import from abroad," despite lower standards.
France has repeatedly called for the re-opening of the 2019 deal to include social and environmental clauses, but the EU executive has opposed it.
There are fears the political ramifications of farmers’ uprisings could further entrench France’s opposition.
The agreement has also faced political hurdles across the Atlantic, with Brussels recently fearing hard-right libertarian Javier Millei’s electoral victory in Argentina could scupper the deal. Millei threatened to quit Mercosur on the campaign trail, but Brussels has continued to insist it is working towards an agreement.
Any deal struck by the EU executive with Mercosur or any other third country or market would need to be ratified by the 27 member states and the European Parliament.
"At the moment, the Commission considers that the conditions to conclude negotiations with Mercosur are not met," the Commission said, in a sign negotiations continue to be plagued with difficulties.
Macron is set to discuss the issue in a bilateral meeting with von der Leyen on the margins of a summit of EU leaders on Thursday.
His government has already made concessions in response to farmers’ demonstrations, including a tax cut on fuel and reduced red tape. But as protests continue unabated and amid fears France’s far-right parties could capitalise on farmers’ discontent, Macron is expected to reiterate his firm opposition to the Mercosur deal.
The Commission said that the interest of farmers is a "priority" in all of its free trade negotiations with third countries.