EU officials have been accused of selling out agriculture, after striking a trade deal with the Mercosur bloc of South American countries that opens the EU market up to greater imports of cheap beef.
The agreement, which will cover Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, comes after two decades of negotiation.
EU president Jean-Claude Junker described the pact as a historic moment, which will boost EU exports of cars, machinery, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, clothing and footwear.
But EU farm leaders have reacted with alarm, highlighting the effect it will have on the beef, poultry and sugar sectors, in particular.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Mercosur bloc will be able to import 99,000t of beef into the EU at preferential rates.
Although the EU already imports almost 270,000t of beef from South America, this is at higher tariff rates than will have to be paid in future.
The EU has also agreed to improved conditions for a quota of 180,000t of sugar.
EU farmers’ lobby group Copa-Cogeca said it deeply regretted the “substantial concessions” that had been made on the agricultural side in order to facilitate gains in other sectors.
“Considering the huge difference in production standards, the imports of Mercosur’s agricultural goods will de facto establish double standards and unfair competition for some key European production sectors, putting their viability at stake,” it said.
Joe Healy, president of the Irish Farmers Association, said EU negotiators have colluded in a deal that sold out Irish and European farmers.
As big exporters of beef, the Irish will be particularly affected by the deal because, combined with Brexit, it could see the EU’s self-sufficiency in beef increase to 116%.
The Mercosur countries can also produce beef more cheaply than EU producers, meaning they will be able to undercut European production.
Mr Healy said: “This is a bad deal for Ireland and for Irish farmers, it’s a bad deal for the environment and it’s a bad deal for EU standards and consumers.
“It represents a backroom deal with big business and kowtows to the likes of Mercedes and BMW in their drive to get cars into South America.
“It is a disgraceful and feeble sellout of a large part of our most valuable beef market to Latin American ranchers and factory farm units,” he said.
EU agriculture commission Phil Hogan admitted the agreement will bring “challenges” to European farmers, but argued that overall it was fair and balanced, with opportunities on both sides.
The commission has promised it will mak a €1bn support package available to farmers in the event of market disturbance.
The agreement will also provide the EU duty-free access, subject to quotas, to the Mercosur bloc for cheese and other dairy products.
Additionally, the Mercosur countries have agreed to put in place legal guarantees that they will not imitate 357 high-quality European food and drink products that have geographic protected status.
The NFU said before being implemented, the agreement would need to pass through all the national and regional parliaments of each member state, which could take a significant time.
If the Mercosur deal was agreed and ratified by all 28 members of the EU, including the UK, before Brexit, the UK would potentially look to roll the agreement over.
However, if the UK leaves before ratification, it is likely that it would not seek to roll the agreement over and the UK and Mercosur members would therefore need to renegotiate their own trading relationship in the future.