PARIS — French Trade Minister Olivier Becht said the upcoming Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU should not force through negotiations on a trade deal between the EU and South America’s Mercosur bloc.
“We have to stop thinking that Mercosur [will be concluded] under the Spanish presidency or never,” Becht told POLITICO in a telephone interview on Friday from Santiago at the end of a one-week visit to Brazil and Chile.
“If it’s done under the Spanish presidency because by then we have a balanced agreement, that’s good. If it’s not done under the Spanish presidency, it doesn’t mean that it’s dead forever,” he explained. “It means that maybe we need to give ourselves some more time.”
For France, “it is not a matter of timing; it is a matter of balance in the deal,” Becht said. “And the Brazilians feel the same.”
Paris is ready to back the EU-Mercosur deal if its demands are met, the minister said, noting that French companies and farmers have much to gain from the trade agreement.
“There are clearly provisions in the Mercosur agreement that are very favorable to our companies. That’s why we’ve never been against signing this agreement,” he said.
Paris, a long-time opponent of the deal, has repeatedly said that France could only change its mind if the Mercosur bloc commits to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon, to comply with the Paris climate agreement, and to apply the same environmental and sanitary standards as EU farmers.
“I can’t imagine that, just because it’s the Spanish presidency, we’re signing an agreement in which we don’t have the guarantees we’ve imposed on other countries [in trade deals] since the French presidency of the [Council of the] EU” in the first half of 2022, he said.
Earlier this year, Brussels proposed that Mercosur countries address some of those concerns by agreeing on a sustainability addendum and the EU is now pressing them to answer “very soon.”
But, after meeting with several Brazilian ministers and officials, Becht said he had the impression that the Mercosur countries had not yet agreed among themselves on the EU’s proposals and on their own counterproposals. “Not all [Mercosur] countries share the same views” on the EU’s new environmental requests, he said.
Becht’s comments come hours before European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travels to Latin America to meet with the heads of state of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. On Monday, von der Leyen is scheduled to meet with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula will be in Paris on June 22-23 to attend a “summit for a new global financial pact” organized by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The EU-Mercosur trade deal came back on the EU agenda after the election of Lula in Brazil. It is set to be a priority for the Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU, which begins on July 1.
In parallel, the debate is also heating up in France.
France’s National Assembly is set to approve on Tuesday a resolution urging the government to oppose the Mercosur deal in its current form and to give national lawmakers a say on it. The text is sponsored by MPs from both Macron’s majority and the left-wing opposition.
Lawmakers from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally are also going to vote in favor of the resolution, Jean-Philippe Tanguy, president of the National Rally group in the National Assembly, told POLITICO.
In the interview Friday, Becht said that “the text of the resolution and the position of the government are very close.”
Becht insisted that France’s concerns have to do with the environmental aspects of the deal and are not a political move to please French farmers and the beef industry, which strongly oppose the deal.
“We protect the interests of our farmers in trade policy; farmers also have an interest in these trade agreements,” Becht said, stressing that other trade deals like the one between the EU and Canada benefitted French farmers. “We can’t be accused of being protectionist,” he said.