France urged EU partners on Thursday to proceed more firmly and cautiously with trade negotiations, while denying it was blocking the conclusion of any deal before its presidential election in April.
EU diplomats have said France, which is particularly sensitive on agriculture, wants to delay agreeing deals with Chile and New Zealand, with whom talks are at advanced stages.
French trade minister Franck Riester denied the diplomats’ assertions that his country was blocking any deals, but stressed the bloc needed to be tougher with would-be partners on issues, such as labour and human rights and environmental protection.
“We need to be firm to ensure that these new trade agreements are the levers for movement on concerns other than just commercial concerns,” Riester told reporters before a meeting of EU trade ministers in Brussels.
“The message we want to convey is that the substance of these deals comes first, before the speed at which they are finalised,” he said.
European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis told a later news conference that, while there was still substantial work required for a New Zealand deal, technical discussions on Chile were done.
He said talks were continuing with EU members, who would have to approve any deal.
“Actually the political window of opportunity is now much narrower because Chile is also entering its electoral cycle and it’s important that the political conclusions arrive at results really soon,” he said.
Chile will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Nov. 21.
Zdravko Počivalšek, economy minister of Slovenia, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said most EU countries favoured advancing a deal.
“If we take elections into account every time, we will never make progress,” he said.
Xiana Margarida Méndez Bértolo, State Secretary for trade of Spain worried that the EU might lose its credibility as a trading partner if it could not make progress on the free trade agreement with Chile.
Riester said EU negotiators needed to be attentive towards sensitive agricultural sectors, with, for example, livestock farmers facing volatility and a jump in feed prices.
“At the moment when there are a lot of difficulties in these sensitive sectors, in the agricultural sector, we have to be particularly vigilant,” he said.
German counterpart Peter Altmaier said elections in large EU members inevitably led to pauses of certain important EU matters, but that progress on important files such as on Chile should not necessarily be stalled until France votes.