ASUNCION – Representatives from South America’s Mercosur bloc and the European Union began a new round of free-trade negotiations on Wednesday, with both sides saying they hoped the talks would finally bring an end to a process first launched more than 19 years ago.
Luis Fernando Avalos, representative of Paraguay, which currently holds Mercosur’s rotating presidency; and the EU’s chief negotiator, Sandra Gallina, underscored each bloc’s shared responsibility for bringing the negotiations to a successful close.
“Since 2015, very important advances have been made,” Avalos said at the start of the negotiating round at the Paraguayan Olympic Committee’s headquarters.
Gallina said for her part that the EU and Mercosur had been polishing up aspects of the draft agreement during previous rounds in South America and Brussels and that little now separated the two sides.
Avalos was joined by the negotiators of the other three Mercosur countries (Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil), all of whom expressed confidence that an agreement can be finalized over the next two weeks of dialogue through March 2.
Separately, the French government said in Paris Wednesday, amid pressure from farmers wary about an eventual compromise on market access for South American beef, that it had not modified its “red lines” in the negotiations.
Those red lines include limiting tariff-free imports of fresh beef and rejecting output from mass-production farms and imports of beef from animals, such as dairy cows, that are abused prior to slaughter, Paris said, adding that it also will insist upon an emergency mechanism that will allow it to react in the event the EU beef market becomes destabilized.
French Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert denied that EU negotiators had agreed to increase the quota on tariff-free imports of South American beef to 99,000 tons annually, saying they were sticking to their initial offer of 70,000 tons.
On Wednesday, France’s main farmers’ union, the FNSEA, and the Young Farmers (JA) held dozens of rallies involving some 20,000 people to protest against an eventual free-trade deal.
The farmers say they must comply with health and environmental regulations that do not apply to their counterparts in the Mercosur countries.
Since 1999, the EU and Mercosur have been negotiating a broad association agreement that includes the proposed free-trade deal, although conversations broke down completely between 2004 and 2010 and formal talks were only relaunched in 2016.