French farmers blocked highways with tractors on Wednesday in protest of an increase in agricultural imports from South America as well as changes in farm subsidies.
Negotiations between representatives from the European Union and South American trade bloc Mercosur resumed on Tuesday, as the two parties seek to agree a wide-ranging trade deal. However, agricultural issues, particularly EU beef imports, have been stalling the talks.
Farmers were angered by reports that EU representatives raised their offer for Mercosur beef market access. A deal could lead to the import of between 70,000 and 99,000 tonnes of tariff-free beef from South American countries, such as Argentina or Brazil, each year.
The farmers are concerned about increasing South American agricultural imports, saying the products do not meet European quality standards.
Christiane Lambert, head of French farmers’ union FNSEA, told French news channel BFM TV that French President Emmanuel Macron “is keeping his promises on the issue of prices paid to farmers.” She added, “But you can’t tell people ‘go upmarket, produce quality goods’ … and then open wide Europe’s borders to products that will compete using very different quality standards. This is the inconsistency that we want to highlight.”
Commenting on the possible trade deal, Paraguay’s Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga said “We still need to conclude sensitive pending issues.” Loizaga, who currently holds the Mercosur rotating presidency, noted the two blocs agreed on 90% of the issues, and that topics such as beef exports to Europe had already been sorted out.
European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan said it remains to be seen whether a deal will emerge or not. Speaking earlier this week in Brussels, Hogan said, “We will only do a deal if we are satisfied it is a good deal and balanced outcome that reflects the mandate that has been given to the Commission by the Council.”
Around 20,000 farmers participated in protests across France, according to FNSEA estimates. In addition to concerns over the Mercosur deal, farmers have been angered in recent weeks by plans to alter French farm subsidies.
According to French radio broadcaster RFI, two unions released a joint statement claiming that by planning to reduce the number of “less favoured agricultural areas,” which are entitled to subsidies from the EU, the government is “laughing at farmers.”
On Thursday, Macron spoke to hundred of farmers that he invited to the presidential palace in Paris ahead of the show. In response to concerns of Chinese investors buying French farms, Macron told farmers he would protect their interests against foreign buyers. He also said he would defend their position in Mercosur talks.
“There will never be beef with hormones in it in France,” said Macron. We shouldn’t play with fear. There will be no reduction in our social, environmental or health standards.”
Macron is expected to attend the annual Paris farm show on Saturday as part of a traditional presidential visit. The visit could be fraught with tension, according to AFP, noting that Macron was hit with an egg thrown by a protester at last year’s show.