France slows EU trade deals with New Zealand and Chile until after election

France has persuaded the EU to postpone signing two new trade agreements until after its presidential elections in April, angering other member states which want the deals to be concluded.

The EU had hoped to finalise trade pacts with Chile and New Zealand this year but Paris has convinced the European Commission — which negotiates such deals on behalf of the union’s 27 member states — to delay the deals.

EU diplomats said Emmanuel Macron, president of France, feared a surge in imports of chicken from Chile and lamb from New Zealand, which opposition candidates could use to mobilise farmers and groups opposed to globalisation as he campaigns for re-election.

French officials confirmed Paris was not ready to accept the two deals as complete, on the grounds that farm export quotas and wording on environmental concerns still needed to be finalised.

“We need to fully take into account sustainable development issues and agricultural sensitivities,” said Franck Riester, France’s foreign trade minister.

The resistance from France has sparked concern among other EU countries, which will pressure the commission at a meeting of trade ministers in Brussels on Thursday.

“We got very positive noises about Chile for the last couple of weeks and then suddenly nothing. We hope for a full update from the commission,” said one EU diplomat.

Member states give mandates to commission negotiators to conclude trade deals, which are then ratified by national parliaments. Several member states believe the commission should have rejected the French request, the diplomat said.

The deal with Chile would update a looser association agreement, and would give the EU easier access to secure supplies of lithium to boost its electric car industry and reduce dependence on China.

One EU official said there was a “small window of opportunity” for a deal with Chile, with talks having started in 2017. “It is a really good deal,” they Said. “But the French are against it over some chicken.”

The EU is a net exporter of poultry. It consumed 11.6m tonnes in 2020, with 650,000 tonnes imported. Chile, already the bloc’s fourth biggest source of imports, would get an 18,000 tonne tariff-free quota for chicken.

Brussels started trade talks with New Zealand in 2018 and still has outstanding issues including data sharing and the protection of European cheeses. The EU wants New Zealand farmers to stop labelling cheese as feta, Gruyère and other famous marques.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand prime minister, postponed a trip to Brussels this month because of the lack of progress.

Her spokesperson blamed a “range of reasons, including the best timing of negotiations”.

The UK concluded a deal with New Zealand last month.

The commission said: “We do not comment on the trade negotiations with third countries until they are concluded. We also do not comment on comments or speculation.”

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