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Macron’s bombshell text threatens to wreck von der Leyen’s trade deal

Macron’s bombshell text threatens to wreck von der Leyen’s trade deal

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Macron’s bombshell text threatens to wreck von der Leyen’s trade deal

There are ways of asking for a favor that are hard to refuse.

With one private text message to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Emmanuel Macron attempted to blow up a trade deal with the Mercosur group of Latin American countries that has been two decades in the making.

The proposed accord, which would create a free trade area spanning nearly 800 million people, has become just too hot for the French president to handle as he battles to contain an uprising by farmers already furious over falling incomes. 

Macron, the EU leader who most strongly opposes the Mercosur pact, wants to shield French agriculture from an influx of Brazilian and Argentinian beef. He put his concerns to her in a text message last week, and his allies believe she signaled her agreement, according to people familiar with the matter.

“We need clarity on Mercosur, we ask that the deal should not be signed in its current shape,” Macron said Tuesday on a visit to Sweden, putting his demand on the record.

Macron will raise the matter directly with von der Leyen when they meet in Brussels this week at a summit of European Union leaders. His trump card is von der Leyen’s own precarious future.

As she contemplates running to lead the Commission for a second five-year term, the German politician cannot afford to alienate one of the bloc’s most powerful leaders, according to several officials, who, like others, asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly.

“Ursula von der Leyen knows that she needs the support of President Macron in the perspective of a possible second mandate,” said one French MEP from Macron’s camp. 

South American countries take a similar view. She “needs the French for her re-election,” said a diplomat from a Mercosur nation, adding that ongoing farmers protests have put a “huge pressure” on the Commission. 

“No stop”

Despite Macron’s remarks, EU officials and Mercosur diplomats rejected suggestions from the Elysée that the talks had been put on hold. Chief negotiators met last week in Brazil, and are due to reconvene by videoconference in coming weeks, Mercosur diplomats said.

“There is no stop,” Michael Hager, head of the cabinet of EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, told an event in Brussels on Tuesday. “It’s certainly not the case that we suddenly tear up our papers, go home and lie down in a deckchair.”

Cows are seen at Liniers Market, in Liniers neighborhood, Buenos Aires | Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Commission spokesperson Olof Gill confirmed there had been an exchange between Macron and von der Leyen, but did not say whether she had ordered the trade talks to be put on hold, noting instead that outstanding remained to address.

“Currently the Commission’s assessment is that the conditions to conclude the Mercosur negotiations are not met,” Gill said. 

The highly sensitive interaction between the French president and the head of the European Commission crystallises a moment of acute political pain for EU leaders. 

Across the continent, the farm protest movement has spread rapidly in recent weeks and months. Demonstrations have brought gridlock to parts of Germany, Poland, Belgium and France.

The details of their grievances vary from one country to another. But one common theme among the placards and rallying cries is how EU policies, ranging from climate initiatives to easing import rules for Ukrainian produce, have undermined European farmers’ incomes and left many agricultural businesses on the brink of collapse. 

For the French, among others, the Mercosur deal is one step too far. 

This week, French farmers have sought to blockade the roads on the outskirts of Paris, pushing political heavyweights on Macron’s team into joining them blaming the EU for the hardships that have driven them onto the street.

Green backlash

Macron is using the EU gathering to put pressure on Brussels to relax green farming obligations, limit imports from Ukraine and ditch free-trade negotiations with South American countries. 

“We are asking for some very tangible things for our farmers,” Macron told reporters in Sweden, as he confirmed he will be discussing the crisis with von der Leyen in person. His agriculture minister, Marc Fesneau, will prepare the ground on Wednesday at a meeting with EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton and Belgian vice-prime minister David Clarinval.

Macron’s wish list includes an exemption to EU rules requiring farmers to set aside part of their arable land to foster biodiversity, but also measures to limit imports of poultry and cereals from Ukraine — two main concerns for French farmers that are shared in some other member countries. 

The special EU summit is meant to be focusing on forging an agreement on a new €50-billion aid package for Ukraine. 

With other leaders also under pressure from farmers, diplomats appear for now to be relaxed about Macron’s plan to bring the agricultural uprising up in conversations on the summit sidelines this week as the issue has not yet been put on the official agenda of the meeting.

“No one is going to muzzle” Macron if he insists on raising the issue at the informal summit, said a diplomat from an EU country that supports the Mercosur accord. The diplomat added that it might, however, be necessary to hold a separate informal summit to address it properly.

Leali and Caulcutt reported from Paris, and Zimmermann and Gijs reported from Brussels. Additional reporting from Aitor Hernández-Morales and Nicolas Camut.

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