EXCLUSIVE: The French president is concerned the European Council is rushing into talks with Australia, sources have told SBS News.
SBS Chief International Correspondent Brett Mason reports from Brussels.
French President Emmanuel Macron has urged his fellow European Union leaders not to rush free trade agreement negotiations with Australia and New Zealand, fearing a “free trade stampede” will “wipe out” his country’s “struggling” agricultural sector.
Sources directly involved with trade negotiations at the European Council in Brussels have told SBS News that Mr Macron and Irish Taoiseach (leader) Leo Varadkar have been the loudest critics of the so-called ‘fast tracked’ trade negotiations, first announced by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during his annual State of the Union address in September.
The Commission’s controversial negotiating guidelines include bypassing the European Union’s 38 national and regional parliaments, after a deal between the single market and Canada was almost blocked by a group of Belgian councillors, much to the embarrassment of negotiators in Brussels.
The guidelines, which also requested the power of final approval, were debated and passed by the European Parliament in October.
The 28 leaders who form the European Council must now decide whether or not to give the proposal the green light. It aims to have free trade agreements signed, sealed and delivered before the next European Parliament elections in June 2019.
“Let’s put it very bluntly; free trade with Australia has been well received by quite a few member states but there are others – in particular, France – that have seen that push as very premature indeed,” a source told SBS News.
“The French want to make absolutely sure that we are not on some sort of free trade stampede.”
Agriculture imports are particularly sensitive and have long been rejected by France. The Chair of the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee Bernd Lange confirmed to SBS News last month that the agricultural sector would never be fully liberalised.
Despite Parliament’s moves to protect French interests, Mr Macron is concerned the European Council “is putting the cart before the horse” by rushing into talks with Australia and New Zealand.
A source told SBS News: “Macron is saying, ‘come on guys, we are reforming, it’s tough enough, but on top of that I have to tell my farmers they are going to be wiped out by Australian and New Zealand imports?’”
“I wouldn’t rule out a deal, we’re on a bit of a free trade roll at the moment, I would say Australia’s odds of a deal by 2019 are better than even.”
The European Union’s push to sign agreements leaves British Prime Minister Theresa May in a diplomatically difficult position.
The Australian government publicly – and repeatedly – backed the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union, arguing Britain could use its seat at the negotiating table to help make the case for Australia’s long-held enhanced trade ambitions.
Meeting with former British Prime Minister David Cameron in June 2016, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told journalists “a strong UK as part of the European Union would be in Australia’s interests.” Now that the United Kingdom has voted to leave, it too wants to secure bilateral trade deals with Australia and New Zealand.
“All bets are off” a British diplomat told SBS News, indicating that while there were no plans to “frustrate” Australia’s negotiations with Europe, “the Prime Minister has been clear the securing the best possible trade deals for Britain once we have left the European Union is a priority”.
SBS News spoke to Mr Macron as he arrived at the final European Council of the year in Brussels on Thursday and asked if he had voiced any concerns about accelerated trade talks with Australia and New Zealand.
“No, I never expressed concern,” Mr Macron said.
“I’m always very careful about reciprocity, respect for environment, social and efficient clauses.”
Mr Macron was then interrupted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel greeting him. He handed over press duties to her.
“There, I did it,” he joked as he gestured towards the microphones and cameras, before continuing inside the summit and leaving his Ms Merkel to speak to journalists.