Facing election, France urges EU caution on new trade deals

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France urged EU partners to proceed more firmly and cautiously with trade negotiations, while denying it was blocking the conclusion of any deal before its presidential election in April.

EU diplomats have said that France has put pressure on the European Commission, which negotiates on behalf of the 27 EU members, to delay agreeing deals with Chile and New Zealand, with whom talks are at advanced stages.

French trade minister Franck Riester denied the diplomats’ assertions that France was blocking any deals , but stressed the bloc needed to be firmer with would-be partners on “sustainable” issues, such as labour and human rights and environmental protection.

“We need to be firm to ensure that these new trade agreements are the levers for movement on concerns other than just commercial concerns,” Riester told reporters before a meeting of EU trade ministers in Brussels.

“The message we want to convey is that the substance of these deals comes first, before the speed at which they are finalised,” he said.

Riester said EU negotiators needed to be attentive towards sensitive agricultural sectors, with, for example, livestock farmers facing volatility and a jump in feed prices.

“At the moment when there are a lot of difficulties in these sensitive sectors, in the agricultural sector, we have to be particularly vigilant,” he said.

German counterpart Peter Altmaier said elections in large EU members inevitably led to pauses of certain important EU matters, but that progress should not necessarily be stalled until France votes.

“I think until then there is enough time at last in the most important cases, and the most important cases include ongoing negotiations with Chile, to reach a good result,” he said.

He added it would also be an important matter for the next German government. Altmaier’s Christian Democrats will not be part of the coalition.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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