Trade minister Franck Riester faced criticism in the European Parliament on Monday (24 January) for the “glamorous silence” of the French EU Council presidency when it comes to free trade agreements.
Last week, when French president Emmanuel Macron presented his priorities for the six-month French EU presidency to the European parliament, he did not mention any of the EU’s pending free trade agreements (FTAs) as priorities.
Likewise, his trade minister Franck Riester only made passing reference to FTAs when he explained the trade-related priorities of the French EU presidency before the European Parliament’s trade committee on Monday.
Instead, he focused on the importance of a more sustainable and at the same time more assertive trade policy.
Progress on EU trade agreements has stalled in recent months. While negotiations for updated free trade deals with New Zealand, Chile, and Mexico are finished, the FTAs have not yet been signed. Meanwhile, an agreement with the South American trading bloc Mercosur has been stuck since 2019 due to sustainability concerns from some member states, including France.
This French EU presidency’s hesitancy on trade agreements drew criticism from several members of the European Parliament.
“I would like to express my surprise and displeasure about the glamorous silence in the priorities of the French presidency for the ratification of [the Mercosur] agreement and other negotiations in this region,” said Gabriel Mato, a Spanish MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).
Speaking for the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Spanish MEP Inmaculada Rodríguez-Piñeiro also lamented the lack of attention paid to Latin America in the priorities of the French presidency.
“There was no mention of Latin America in the priorities and this seems worrying to me. I think that the importance of this relationship merits an explicit mention,” she said.
The EPP’s Christophe Hansen (Luxembourg) drew attention specifically to the trade deal between the EU and Chile.
“The FTA with Chile is something that the EU urgently needs, especially if we want to implement our ecological transition,” he said, referring to the large lithium and copper deposits in the South-American country. Both resources are crucial in the electrification of industries that are currently dependent on fossil fuels.
Focus on Sustainability
Riester retorted that the trade deal with Chile could not be signed before the new Chilean government takes office in March, hinting at the possibility that the agreement might yet be changed.
“For us, the important thing is first of all the substance before speed. The ambition of sustainable development and the protection of a certain number of sensitive sectors remain for us elements that must be taken into account,” he told the members of Parliament.
Regarding the Mercosur deal, Riester said it was up to the European Commission to get more assurances from those countries on issues like deforestation, climate change, as well as sanitary and phytosanitary norms.
While many EU lawmakers appreciated France’s green focus on trade, some also suspected that sustainability concerns are being used as an excuse by Paris to put EU trade talks on ice during the French election campaign.
Trade deals are traditionally opposed by French farmers. And with the presidential campaign now picking up momentum, President Emmanuel Macron has no interest in fuelling protests by farmers shortly before the April election.
Instead of advancing on trade deals, the French government is expected to push for progress on the anti-coercion instrument that the Commission proposed in December 2021 to advance a more assertive EU trade policy. Moreover, the French presidency aims to deepen ties with African countries at an EU-Africa summit to be held in mid-February.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]