Tuesday 27 September 2016

Brussels briefing: EU Commissioners split on beef impact of Mercosur deal

Sarah Collins

Published 14/09/2016 | 02:30

Marian Harkin
Marian Harkin

The future of the EU's trade deal in North America may be in doubt, but talks continue on a longer-running deal with a South American bloc of countries known as Mercosur.

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Negotiators will hold informal discussions this week ahead of formal talks in mid-October on a deal that Independent MEP Marian Harkin says could put the squeeze on Irish beef farmers.

"If large quantities of Brazilian or Argentinian beef were allowed to be sold in the EU it would automatically have a detrimental impact on Irish farmers and may even put many out of business," Ms Harkin said.

She says Ireland should press the EU not to do a deal that gives Mercosur wide-ranging access to European agricultural markets.

While EU agriculture chief Phil Hogan said in May that beef was off the menu in the talks, his colleague, trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström, said a deal can't be done without them.

"It is unrealistic to expect Mercosur to conclude negotiations with the EU without obtaining any improvement in their access to the EU market for beef," Ms Malmström told Ms Harkin in response to a parliamentary question.

She said an agreement with Mercosur would require making "market access concessions on partner countries' key export interests" but added that the Commission would respect "sensitivities in agriculture".

Machinery

Agricultural products make up the bulk of EU imports from the five countries in the Mercosur bloc - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela - while machinery and vehicles are the EU's main exports to the region. Venezuela is not currently participating in the EU talks.

EU-Mercosur trade was worth more than 90 billion euros last year, with the EU exporting €5billion more than it imports from the bloc.

The Irish Farmers' Association says that production standards in South American countries are inferior to the EU's, particularly when it comes to traceability, animal health, the environment and hormone use.

Talks on a deal with the Mercosur bloc began more than 15 years ago but were suspended in 2004 after the countries rejected the EU's offer on agriculture.

The talks restarted in 2010 but after nine negotiating rounds, no substantial progress was made until this spring.

In the autumn the Commission will publish a paper quantifying the effects of all of its trade deals on agriculture - particularly the deal with Mercosur, the recently completed deal with Canada and the putative deal with the US.

Greening payments under fire

Not a week goes by now without some chatter on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Earlier this month France called for a permanent crisis management fund for the CAP, while the UK is debating the end of land-based direct payments after Brexit.

EU climate groups told agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan this week that special environmental subsidies introduced in 2015, known as “greening” payments, have been a “failure”, and called again for a complete CAP overhaul.

“I agree entirely that the preservation of the environment and climate action must be at the core of any policy debate and that more needs to be done to deliver on the EU’s international agreement obligations,” Mr Hogan said after meeting with the European Environmental Bureau, BirdLife Europe and WWF Europe. The European Commission published a staff paper in June on the impact of greening, but said it was too early to draw any real conclusions.

Ministers focus on retail deals

EU agriculture ministers meet today in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, for informal talks on strengthening farmers’ position in the food supply chain.

The talks will focus on farmers’ cooperatives and organisations, how prices are affected by commodity markets, and unfair trading practices, especially by large supermarket chains.

There have been calls, particularly by MEPs, to regulate unfair practices and ensure better prices for farmers, particularly in the wake of crises in the dairy, pork and fruit and vegetable sectors over the last two years.

So far the European Commission has held off on proposing legislation, though it has put in place two emergency aid packages worth a combined €1 billion for affected sectors.

Trade deals are ‘damaged goods’ – Harkin

Marian Harkin has also added her voice to those that are sceptical about the prospects of concluding a so-called transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) with the US.

“Trade deals are damaged goods right now, especially TTIP,” she told the

Farming Independent from her office in Brussels.

“It’s partly the anti-globalisation sentiment where people believe that globalisation has not worked for them. Politicians have to take part of the responsibility for that.”

Her comments follow criticism from French and German ministers and the Belgian prime minister about the prospects for concluding TTIP before the end of US president Barack Obama’s term in office.

“It’s definitely not going to happen now,” Ms Harkin added.

Meanwhile, Ms Harkin said the European Parliament should put a stop to the European Commission “provisionally” applying a recently concluded deal with Canada before it has been voted on by the Dáil and other national and regional parliaments in Europe.

“Given that they accept that all member states must approve it, to try to find a way around that is, at its core, anti-democratic,” she said.

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