A number of EU countries spoke out against reviving the EU-Mercosur trade deal during a meeting of agriculture ministers in Brussels on Monday (20 March). But with an agreement already hammered out, room for change is limited.
The debate on the trade agreement between the EU and the four Mercosur countries – Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – gained traction again after a change of government in Brazil ended years of estrangement between key EU countries and the right-wing populist government of then-president Jair Bolsonaro.
But a number of countries stand against efforts to finalise the agreement after years of standstill, with the impact on the domestic agriculture sector being one of the main worries.
In particular, Austrian agriculture minister Norbert Totschnig pushed back against the deal. During the meeting of EU agriculture ministers, he put forth a note in which he spoke out against sealing the deal.
“[While] the EU and its member states have been continuously increasing the climate, environmental, animal welfare and social standards for agricultural production,” the deal as it stands “lacks the necessary focus on sustainable agricultural aspects,” the paper put forth by Austria reads.
Vienna and other critics worry that striking a free trade deal with countries that are large agricultural exporters will mean domestic products on the EU market are crowded out by imports that are produced with lower climate and environmental standards.
Speaking during the press conference after the meeting, Swedish agriculture minister Peter Kullgren confirmed that several member states had sided with Austria on the issue.
According to another source inside the closed-door meeting, more than 10 countries shared the concerns raised by Totschnig.
Another source said a number of member states stressed the need for environmental, sustainability, and health standards applied to imported products to be equivalent to those applied within the EU.
Too late to change?
To ensure a level playing field for domestic producers, they argued, EU standards would need to be promoted abroad.
Countries like France and Austria, especially, have been calling to implement such reciprocity through mirror clauses that ensure domestic standards are applied within the trade agreement.
“Restricting our European agriculture through ever-higher standards while at the same time importing beef or sugar with lower standards from overseas does not go together,” Totschnig stressed in a statement.
“The European Commission has not given any meaningful answers when it comes to import controls and protection against market distortions,” he added.
The Commission, meanwhile, has been hesitant when it comes to the idea of incorporating reciprocity.
Incorporating mirror clauses into the agreement is “not an acceptable measure”, an EU official told EURACTIV. “After all, we would not like to have others dictate how to regulate our market either,” they added.
At the same time, it is also difficult to still make major changes to the deal at this point in time for formal reasons: The EU and the Mercosur countries had already found a political agreement on the deal in 2019, with only ratification from both sides pending.
While several EU countries and many in the agricultural sector are critical of the planned EU-Mercosur agreement, the German government has proven a champion of the trade deal in hopes of achieving sustainability through cooperation.
A clear ‘no’ from Austria
This means that, short of renegotiating the whole deal, the agreement itself cannot be changed anymore.
Instead, both parties are currently negotiating an addendum to the original agreement that is set to address sustainability concerns and which the Commission hopes to conclude by the end of the year.
However, as it is not part of the main text, this path only leaves scope for limited tweaks and extra measures.
Totschnig, on the other hand, vowed not to accept anything short of a renegotiation. “We stand by the ‘no’ [to the deal] enshrined in our government programme,” he stressed.
Both coalition partners in the Austrian government, Totschnig’s conservatives and the Greens, are against concluding the agreement. The government is also bound by a 2019 parliamentary vote in which the then newly concluded deal was rejected.
Jonathan Packroff and Gerardo Fortuna contributed to the reporting.
[Edited by Natasha Foote/Nathalie Weatherald]