The EU’s Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, sought to address national concerns over the proposed EU-Mercosur trade deal during a meeting with the bloc’s 28 farm ministers on Monday (15 July).
“We have arrived at quotas rather than full liberalisation,” Hogan told ministers in an attempt to allay fears that Europe will be swept by cheap agricultural imports from South America if the EU-Mercosur trade deal is implemented.
“There will be no product that will arrive in the EU from the Mercosur countries without complying with existing EU food safety standard,” Hogan insisted, slamming “misinformation and misplaced facts” around the EU-Mercosur trade agreement.
It was the first meeting of EU agriculture ministers since the Commission reached a political agreement on a trade deal with Mercosur countries last month, after 20 years of negotiations.
Ever since, national politicians, farmers’ unions and environmentalists have spoken out against the trade agreement, which still needs to be ratified in each of the 28 EU member states before it can enter into force.
EU farmers and cooperatives’ association Copa-Cogeca is among the most outspoken critics of the deal. Under the draft agreement, Mercosur countries were offered market access to a large number of sectors without Europe getting substantial reciprocity in return, said Pekka Pesonen, Secretary-General of the EU farmers’ union.
€1 billion support package
Politicians across Europe have echoed farmers’ concerns. In France, Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume warned before yesterday’s meeting that there won’t be “an accord at any price”. And in Ireland, lawmakers voted down the agreement in a symbolic move just days before.
At yesterday’s ministerial meeting, EU member states reiterated those concerns.
Eastern European countries, like Poland, Hungary or Romania, expressed worries about the deal’s potential impact on their national poultry sector. Other countries, meanwhile, referred to specific domestic markets for products like honey, pasta or sparkling wine, according to an EU source.
To address these concerns, the European Commission put together a €1 billion support package for farmers and agri-food businesses in order to cushion the potential market disturbances caused by the EU-Mercosur agreement, as mentioned in the deal’s conclusions.
“It’s not magic, it’s very real,” Commissioner Hogan said, explaining that the fund will be similar to the one set up in 2014 to alleviate the impact of Russia’s embargo on EU products.
The European Commission also agreed to update an economic study on the cumulative effects of the trade deal on the EU’s agricultural sector, according to an EU source.
Mercosur deal could accelerate deforestation
But worries over the deal don’t stop at agriculture. Some EU countries also expressed concerns over the environmental impact of the trade agreement, insisting that climate goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement are also respected.
“An increase in European demand for beef, soy or other deforestation-linked commodities risks driving greater deforestation,” warned Morgan Gillespy, global forests director at CDP, a non-profit group.
Rather than a threat to the environment, the European Commission portrayed the Mercorsur trade deal as a way to hold South American countries accountable on climate goals, including Brazil and its controversial president Jair Bolsonaro.
“We have insisted on the compliance with the Paris climate agreement. Otherwise, the deal falls,” Hogan said, adding that Mercosur countries are now tied to the Paris agreement like never before.
Under the Paris agreement, Brazil has pledged to plant 12 million hectares of trees and to put an end to unsustainable forest management and illegal logging. Nevertheless, the destruction of the Amazon forest has accelerated in recent months, according to recent media reports.
Deforestation of South America’s forests remains an issue “unless the EU sets clear policies to ensure deforestation-free supply and companies act faster to remove deforestation from their supply chains,” CDP’s Morgan Gillespy told EURACTIV.
Italian Agriculture Minister Gian Marco Centinaio told reporters that his country remains opposed to the EU-Mercosur trade agreement, calling it “a gun to the head” of Italy’s farm sector.
In France, concerns are still running high, despite Emmanuel Macron’s support for free trade, a French source said. More information was needed to assess the deal’s impact on the agriculture sector and food safety standards, the source told EURACTIV.
France is planning to set up a national committee to assess the domestic impact of the deal, an EU source said.
France and Italy are among the largest suppliers of EU food and agricultural products to the Mercosur region.
It could take, however, several months until more information is available. Lawyers of both the European Commission and Mercosur are still busy verifying the text of the political agreement reached on 28 June.
Once validated, the text will be translated into all EU languages, a process which could take between two and three years, according to an EU source.
But the biggest potential cause of delay is the ratification process that is required in the European Parliament and likely in national parliaments as well, in order for the deal to go through.
And that may take a while. Only 13 EU member states have ratified the EU-Canada free trade agreement (CETA) so far, although the ratification process has started in early 2017.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna and Frédéric Simon]