Brussels always knew its Mercosur trade accord would be controversial.
Still, the intensity of the backlash from France, Ireland and Poland has exposed the European Commissions struggle to gain the upper hand in the public debate over the landmark deal.
The Commission barely had time to celebrate reaching its historic trade agreement with the South American bloc (comprising Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) late Friday — after 20 years of negotiations — when a storm of criticism blew in. Senior politicians and agriculture lobbies said the deal is a risk to Europes sacrosanct farming sector and food safety standards, and threatened to block its approval.
“It cant be like this that, in exchange for the intensification of the sales of German cars, the EU will be flooded with cheap food that doesnt meet EU standards,” Polish Agriculture Minister Jan Ardanowski said Wednesday, echoing his French counterpart Didier Guillaume, who claimed Tuesday that he “will not be the minister who sacrifices French agriculture on the altar of an international agreement.”
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also took a swipe at the deal on Tuesday, saying he “will not vote” for it if it isnt in Irish interests. Meanwhile, farming lobbies in all three countries began mobilizing against the agreement.
The Mercosur trade agreement needs to be approved by EU governments and the European Parliament, as well as some 40 national parliaments across Europe.
Environmental organizations, scientists and lawmakers have also criticized the deal, which they say risks accelerating Amazon deforestation — a warning that was lent additional urgency on Tuesday when new data showed that the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest increased by 60 percent last month, destroying the forestry equivalent of one and a half soccer fields every minute.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday, EU trade chief Cecilia Malmström sought to launch a counter-offensive, stressing that the Mercosur deal also created “big opportunities for our farmers” by removing agricultural tariffs in South America, protecting 335 geographical indications “whilst safeguarding sensitive products through limited quotas representing a fraction of overall EU consumption.”
She said that the deal “sets high standards for the environment and workers rights” and stressed that “our partners must abide by [the] Paris [climate] agreement, including on emissions and deforestation.”
European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan also wrote an op-ed in the Irish Examiner, saying “the Commission appreciates fully the sensitivity of the beef sector in Europe,” and stressing that “no product will be allowed to enter the EU market unless it complies 100 percent with EU standards.”
The degree of backlash highlights how the Commission, three years after huge demonstrations against trade deals with the U.S. and Canada, still struggles to defend trade agreements and counter fears in public debates. Without support from EU countries or the companies that benefit from the deals, the Commission often ends up bearing the brunt of the criticism.
The specifics of the Mercosur deal make this particularly difficult: To a certain degree, Brussels is hamstrung as it cant stress too openly that its agricultural concessions to Mercosur countries — particularly on beef — are actually quite limited, because that could embarrass its South American partners, and even jeopardize getting the deal ratified in those countries.
In the deal, the EU and Mercosur agreed on an annual beef quota of 99,000 tons — an offer that had been discussed for more than a year and closely coordinated with Paris, Dublin and Warsaw. Not only did the EU resist pressure from the South Americans to increase that quota in the final stages of the negotiations, but it also negotiated a tariff of 7.5 percent inside this quota, which reduces the competitiveness of meat imports from South America.
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