Trade talks between the EU and the Mercosur countries of South America are expected to take a major step forward next month, but concern remains about the implications of any deal for European agriculture.
Argentina’s trade secretary Miguel Braun has announced that Argentina is prepared to make concessions in order to move the free trade talks – which cover all industries, not just agriculture – forward.
He revealed that an “exchange of offers” would take place on 8 April in Brussels, allowing both sides to reveal the duty-free access they would be willing to consider across all sectors in order to get an agreement.
Getting to this stage would be a significant development in what has proved to be a particularly tortuous negotiation. The last time that the two sides were willing to make an official exchange of offers was back in 2004 and the talks had stalled so badly by 2010 that they had to be officially relaunched.
But in a trade policy committee meeting held in Brussels on 16 March, nine EU countries called for a new impact assessment to be drawn up to quantify the effects of opening up the EU to greater imports from South America.
A document circulated at the meeting, backed by countries such as France and Ireland, is understood to have said that the world has moved on considerably since the last official impact assessment was carried out in 2004.
France and Ireland are also understood to have argued strongly that any offer made by the EU needs to reflect the ongoing agricultural crisis facing European farmers, who could struggle to compete with cheaper imports from South America.
They argued that it was particularly important to offer protection to the most “sensitive” sectors of the agriculture industry which are fruit, vegetables and beef.
For example, an impact assessment conducted by Copa-Cogeca in 2012 suggested raising the amount of beef which Mercosur countries could export to the EU at zero duty could swamp the EU market with cheap beef and cost EU beef farmers €9bn (£7bn).
Lucia Zitti, NFU economist, said talks had been stuck for some time and the fact that both sides were ready to exchange offers was significant.
“But it is worrying. We can’t see any advantages of the trade deal for agriculture. It is a concern particularly on the meat side for beef and poultry producers.”
While countries like Brazil imported relatively small amounts of beef into the UK, the fear was that if Mercosur countries gained greater access to European markets it would depress prices for exporting nations like Ireland, which would feed through to lower prices in the UK, she said.