Ireland must veto any trade deal with the Mercosur group

Forget Brexit: the real challenge facing the Irish livestock industry over the coming months will be that of ensuring that the EU does not sign up to a Mercosur trade agreement.

And there is mounting evidence that Brussels is keen to get a deal over the line, sooner rather than later.

This development has the potential to provide Brazil’s beef industry with tariff-free access to European markets.

Unlike the trade deal struck recently between Canada and the EU, there is no upside for Irish agriculture, where Mercosur is concerned. The reality is that South America does not want Irish beef, poultry, lamb or dairy products.

The region is one of the world’s most powerful food-producing hubs. So the game afoot for Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay is that of securing a free foothold in Europe for the food offerings that they produce in abundance.

So, in reality, Ireland has everything to lose and nothing to win if the EU signs up to a Mercosur deal that hits all the wrong notes, from an agri-food perspective.

The European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, visited the recent National Ploughing Championships. But, in truth, his handling of the Mercosur issue during media interviews gave me particular cause for concern.

He seemed to give the impression that Mercosur will happen and, within this context, the issue of food imports from the South American trading group will be actively addressed.

The commissioner’s core policy point on the matter is that only food produced to the same standards as that expected from EU farmers will be accepted by EU negotiators, as they thrash out the final details of the trade agreement with their Mercosur counterparts.

But can Hogan deliver on this commitment? After all, he is only one of 28 commissioners, each with his or her own specific priorities.

The bottom line is that Brazil has an atrocious track record, where traceability and transparency within its food chain are concerned.

Throw in the country’s ongoing problems with Foot and Mouth Disease, plus its unenviable animal welfare track record, and it’s hard not to conclude that Brazil should be seeking to sort out its own problems before seeking any form of trading arrangement with Europe.

In fact, this reality should be reason enough for the EU to back off from an overarching Mercosur deal until Brazil has put its house fully in order.

It would be an absolute travesty for all of that madness to be overlooked, simply for Europe to sign up to a cheap food deal.

Despite our reliance on grazed grass, Ireland does not produce cheap food.

In the main, this is because every farmer and meat factory in the country has to meet the ever-strengthening production and processing regulations that are required by Brussels. And this is the way it should be. Consumers must have total confidence in the food they are eating.

My understanding is that all trade deals involving the EU must secure unanimous support from all member states.

Given the importance of what is now being discussed between Brussels and the Mercosur group, from an Irish perspective, Leo Varadkar must veto any proposed agreement that comes across his desk. At the end of the day, this is a red line issue for Ireland.