Trade pact will prove tricky for Varadkar in Brussels and at home

A storm is brewing for the Taoiseach that may test Europe's goodwill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Big Phil does not sound totally convinced. The agreement, he admits, "presents some challenges" to Irish farmers, but the European Commission will be "available to help" farmers meet those challenges.

The agreement, 20 years in the making, between the European Union and the Mercosur bloc, comprising Argentina, Brazil Paraguay and Uruguay, has given rise to fears that South American ranchers will now swamp Europe with their beef. Phil Hogan, the EU Agriculture Commissioner, has attempted to dismiss those concerns: "There is no risk that any product will flood the EU market and thereby threaten the livelihood of EU farmers," he says.

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He talks about the agreement being a "fair and balanced deal" with "carefully managed quotas" built in.

But still, signed off months before a possible crash-out Brexit, it is little wonder Irish farmers, and environmentalists everywhere, are up in arms. It will take a lot of air miles to fly thousands of tonnes of Argentinian beef to Bonn every year, let alone to produce such product in the first place.

The Irish Farmers' Association characterises the agreement as a "backroom deal with big business" that allows German manufacturers such as Mercedes and BMW get their cars into South America.

In short, according to the IFA, the agreement is "disgraceful and feeble" and a sell-out of a large part of Ireland's valuable beef market to Latin American ranchers and factory farm units.

Three years ago, when the EU negotiated a similar such agreement, this time with Canada, Belgium vetoed the deal.

In Belgium's federal state, regional governments have a say in approving international agreements.

That proposed deal, known as CETA, included duty-free access for European beef and sheep meat to Canada in exchange for allowing a quota of 50,000t of Canadian beef and 75,000t of pork into the EU.

But then Belgian prime minister Charles Michel could not square the deal with the French-speaking Walloon parliament back home, in the process throwing European trade policy into disarray and raising serious doubts about the EU's ability to strike future trade deals.

So, with farmers here now up in arms, what will the Agriculture Minister Michael Creed do - and what can Leo Varadkar do?

Already, Fianna Fail sources say: "After getting competitive in Dublin again, this'll give us a shot at taking on Fine Gael in some of their well-off rural heartlands too."

That's by-the-by. The real question is whether Mr Varadkar has become so invested in Brexit, and the backstop that he has used up all of his political capital in Europe.

In other words, he is unable to pull a Charles Michel, Walloons or no Walloons, on his back.

Not only that, he has doubled downed, eschewing lesser heard arguments for pragmatism and compromise on the backstop.

And all the while, Irish farmers are sitting like lobsters in the pot, boiling water rising from the bottom.

Is nobody going to shout stop?

Sunday Independent