On 28 June, the EU concluded negotiations for an Association Agreement with the Mercosur countries after nearly 20 years and 40 rounds of talks. This marks the EU’s largest trade deal to date and is four times the size of the trade agreement with Japan.
Irish exporters have been subject to trade tariffs, barriers and restrictions when exporting to Mercosur. This Agreement will see a significant reduction, or elimination, of tariffs and barriers to trade which will allow an increased flow of trade and investment between Ireland, the EU and the Mercosur region. The EU-Mercosur Agreement should make exports from Ireland more attractive, and potentially increase the demand for Irish products.
As with every Free Trade Agreement, Ireland – like all Member States – has defensive as well as offensive interests. The Agreement with Mercosur presents sectorial opportunities for Ireland in areas such as software and services in telecoms, financial services, digital content and travel, engineering products and services, life sciences, food and beverages, and education services. On the other hand, I was always keenly aware of the potential impact that this Agreement could present to the EU’s and Ireland’s agricultural sector. In that regard, Ireland, along with a number of other Member States, asserted early on in the negotiations that agricultural sensitivities - and beef in particular - must be fully considered in the negotiations.
Ireland has also continually highlighted the cumulative impact of agricultural market access across a range of products, including those identified by the Deputy, in relation to all EU trade agreements. Our concerns have been raised at all political levels, including by myself and my officials raising the issues with counterparts, both at Trade Council of Ministers deliberations and bilaterally with the EU Commission, and with my Member State counterparts. For example, I wrote to the EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, as recently as 31st May this year to restate my views, which I had previously articulated at European Trade Council meetings, as well as directly with the Trade Commissioner, regarding the current challenges facing the beef sector. I had sought assurances from the Commission that the final offer on beef – an offensive demand from the Mercosur side – would ensure that:
- the tariff rate quota for beef was low,
- that phasing-in periods were designed to allow sufficient time for Irish and EU industry to adjust,
- the Commission continually monitor quota levels taking into account domestic market conditions,
- the composition of beef imports from the region would be limited in relation to fresh chilled beef, and
- robust checks would be established and monitored at points of import to the EU to ensure animal health and welfare standards have been maintained.
As I am sure the Deputy is also aware, An Taoiseach joined the leaders of France, Poland and Belgium on 17 June, in writing to Commission President Juncker expressing our concerns on the inclusion of sensitive agricultural products in the negotiations, and stating that the current quotas for such products were not be to increased.
Following the conclusion of negotiations for the EU-Mercosur Association Agreement, the Government committed to undertake full economic and environmental sustainability assessments of the political agreement. My Department, in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, is commissioning the studies.
These assessments will consider the impact the Agreement will have on the Irish economy and on jobs, as well as the environmental implications of the deal. It will also consider how the EU-Mercosur Agreement might mitigate/exacerbate the likely impact of Brexit for our economy. This assessment will help to inform our future actions in relation to the EU-Mercosur Agreement.