France and Spain were still at odds over the timeframe for the clinching of an EU-Mercosur free trade deal as European trade ministers gathered in Spain on Friday with the long-delayed pact high on the agenda, officials from both countries said.
Madrid considers that sealing the deal with the South American countries of the Mercosur bloc – Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – after 20 years in the making is a 'priority objective' for the European Union while Spain holds the bloc's rotating presidency until the end of the year.
"We have reached the point of making decisions," Spanish trade minister Hector Gomez told Reuters on the eve of the meeting.
"We need more time to have this agreement to be sure that we can respond to the Mercosur questions and so that we can have guarantee on the environmental standards that we need. It is important that we take the time," French trade minister Olivier Becht told reporters on Friday before entering the EU meeting.
The agreement has been on hold since 2019 largely due to European concerns over Amazon deforestation and Mercosur's slow response to an EU addendum proposing environmental safeguards.
"Negotiations are weekly... the dialogue is permanent", said Gomez, who saw it as a positive that the main text of the treaty had not been reopened for revision and that only the so-called "additional instrument" is being discussed.
The European Union had waited since March for Mercosur's response to attach sustainability and climate change commitments, and Mercosur eventually presented a one-page counterproposal that was the basis for discussions in recent in-person meetings in Brasilia.
Dozens of environmental activists rallied outside the venue in the eastern city of Valencia before the start of the meeting to demand transparency in the negotiations and to prevent any climate change impact from additional exports in a free trade deal.