October 20, 2013 12:32 pm

France maintains hard line on EU transatlantic trade talks

Stephane Le Foll, French agriculture minister, gives a speech at the National Assembly©AFP

Stephane Le Foll, French agriculture minister, gives a speech at the National Assembly

Paris will keep up pressure on EU negotiators to stick to a hard line on key agricultural issues in talks with the US on a new transatlantic trade deal, France’s farming minister has said.

“Red lines” insisted on by France against any changes in Europe’s rules against importing genetically modified crops, meat produced using growth hormones, chemically cleansed meat and cloned animals are set to be at the heart of discussions when trade pact talks resume after the US government shutdown.

“France will be extremely vigilant to ensure that the red lines set out in the [negotiating] mandate given to the European Commission are fully taken into account,” Stéphane Le Foll told the Financial Times in an interview.

Paris has adopted a highly circumspect stance on the trade negotiations, aimed at producing a so-called transatlantic trade and investment partnership, which President Barack Obama and the European Commission want completed next year.

It vetoed inclusion in the talks of the “exception culturelle” , which allows countries to protect their film and music industries, and set out strict conditions on agriculture.

Although sectors such as financial services are also set to be stumbling blocks, the French position on farm and food products illustrates the obstacles facing negotiators. Powerful lobbies on the US side regard European barriers on such issues as GM foods and growth hormones as protectionist, and want them lowered.

Asked if he could envisage movement on these issues, Mr Le Foll replied: “Very difficult . . . We have real differences [with the US] of approach and law on these subjects. We can’t imagine that European rules, which are coupled to the public debate and the choice of consumers, could be modified in the negotiations with the US.”

Mr Le Foll, a long-time close aide to President François Hollande, was speaking before the EU reached a trade pact with Canada on Friday. He acknowledged France had its own interest in potential US concessions in areas such as Washington’s ban on European beef, dating back to the mad cow disease episode in the 1990s, its block on cheese made with unpasteurised milk and its refusal to accept “geographical indicators”, an issue on which Canada made concessions. These, for example, prevent the labelling of any sparkling wine as champagne unless it is made in the French Champagne region.

But the minister, himself of farming stock, said France already had a €2bn food and wine surplus with the US. “I repeat, dialogue must be built on [recognition] of the very different conceptions of agriculture,” he said.

“It is not a question of being afraid of competition. Competition exists on the market today between different agricultural systems. But trade has to be in a framework that respects the choices and structures of different systems – including the choice Europe has made democratically on these issues (such as animal welfare and stringent health standards).”

To ensure our capacity to feed the world in coming years, we need to guarantee agricultural production everywhere

Defending the EU’s diverse, relatively small-scale and subsidised farming, compared to much larger scale production in the US, South America and elsewhere, Mr Le Foll said the world’s agricultural system should not be allowed to evolve into a structure of regional specialisms, where different regions provided the bulk of output of different crops.

“What would happen if one specialist region had a big health problem, or a drought or flood? It would be a major risk. To ensure our capacity to feed the world in coming years, we need to guarantee agricultural production everywhere.”

Despite their unilateral differences, Mr Le Foll said France saw “convergence” between the US and EU on demanding conditions in multilateral negotiations for greater access to their markets for emerging economies. He bemoaned the EU’s agreement almost a decade ago to end “restitution” payments that in effect subsidised some European farm exports, without securing “reciprocity”.

France wanted to see conditions set for further concessions to emerging economies in the form of health standards and “two-way” market access at World Trade Organisation talks due in Bali in December, he said.

Turning to a surge of recent protests against sliding incomes by pork and chicken farmers in Brittany, which accounts for some 40 per cent of French agricultural output, Mr Le Foll said part of the problem lay in Germany.

France had been adversely affected “by competition from Germany, which is unfair competition because Germany does not have a minimum wage and we do. That is a problem,” he said.

The lack of minimum wage meant migrant workers from eastern Europe hired under an EU temporary work permit scheme were much cheaper for German producers than their French counterparts. Mr Le Foll said Germany had agreed to back French proposals to have the scheme tightened up.

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