European farmers have written to the European Commission to “reject any concessions” on the agricultural chapters of the EU’s free trade negotiations with South American trading bloc Mercosur, which they say would expose farmers to unfair competition.
The letter, delivered by the European association of farmers and agri-cooperatives Copa-Cogeca to Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström on Wednesday (24 January), highlights the important role of the agriculture and food industries in the European economy and the threat they would face from increased free trade
Across the 28-country bloc, 22 million farmers supply a food industry that employs 44 million people and contributes to the agri-food sector’s €20 billion export surplus. But Copa-Cogeca argues that accepting the terms currently on the table would be disastrous for the EU’s more sensitive farming sectors, such as beef, poultry, sugar and orange juice, costing them at least €7bn.
Speaking at a press event, Copa-Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said: “The EU has given far too much on agriculture to the Mercosur countries in the negotiations, without getting much in return.”
Mercosur is already the biggest exporter of beef to Europe. Around 250,000 tonnes per year arrive on our shores from the South American bloc, roughly 75% of total imports. Under the current offer being negotiated, the EU would open up to a further 70,000 tonnes of tariff-free imports.
For a sector Pesonen described as already in “dire straits” and “lagging behind other sectors in terms of income”, such a big concession could be disastrous.
Europe’s farmers are already struggling to make ends meet, with low producer prices and high input costs. High standards on traceability, sustainability, animal welfare and food safety mean there is no room for EU farmers to cut corners to make themselves more competitive.
A representative from the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) pointed out that carbon emissions from Brazil’s 226 million strong cattle herd are four times higher per cow than for the European herd. Increasing competition from a big producer whose standards and production costs are so much lower would simply not be fair, he argued.
What is more, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit makes this a critical time for Europe’s beef farmers, and the Irish are particularly exposed.
In the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal, Ireland could lose its biggest customer overnight, the IFA representative said, meaning an additional 250,000 tonnes of beef per year could flood the EU market and depress prices further. In this context, opening up to more cheap South American imports would not make sense, he argued.
In its letter, Copa-Cogeca stressed that it was not against free trade deals in general. While some farming sectors suffered from the recent CETA agreement with Canada, the deal was supported by EU farmers’ representatives because it was “strategic and balanced” and has the potential to deliver new markets for EU quality produce.
But for Pesonen, the same is not true of the Mercosur deal. In this case, he said, “no deal would be better than a bad deal.”