At the end of a week in which the leaders of the Mercosur called for a unified regional response to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, new doubts have emerged over the future of the bloc’s long awaited free-trade deal with the European Union.
Reports in the European press this week suggested that France had gone cold on the deal, as President Emmanuel Macron moves to underline his green credentials in the wake of a blow at the polls.
Earlier this week, Macron said that "time has come to act" on green issues, vowing that his government would look at close to 150 recommendations proposed by a citizen's climate council and refuse to do business with those who failed to live up to commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement – a dig at Brazil leader Jair Bolsonaro, who he has criticised over citing his government’s failure to curb destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
"You say: no trade agreement with states that do not respect the Paris Agreement. I share your position and this is why on Mercosur, I stopped negotiations altogether," he said.
Macron also suggested the crime of “ecocide” should be introduced into law by nations worldwide.
The French leader’s comments came as part of a raft of new commitments to the environment after his ruling party was routed in local elections last Sunday marked by spectacular gains for the Greens.
Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party failed to notch up any significant victory in the second round of municipal elections that had been postponed for over three months due to the coronavirus pandemic. By contrast, the Greens made gains that exceeded their own expectations, with Green mayors now set to lead key regional hubs like Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg.
However, the Mercosur summit revealed that wasn’t Macron wasn’t telling the whole truth. The region’s foreign ministers reported Wednesday that good progress had been made on the final text of the historic trade deal.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo told his counterparts the legal bullet-proofing of a document was all but done, thanks to “cooperation and flexibility” to overcome final differences.
“I hope our coordinators can conclude the text and annexes with the European negotiators after the northern hemisphere summer” and then it will be ready for signing, Araujo said in comments reported overseas.
Making his Mercosur debut on Thursday, President Alberto Fernández called on his peers to tackle the coronavirus pandemic together.
"We are the most unequal continent in [terms of] income distribution, and we have to face that challenge knowing that we are facing a great world crisis," Fernández warned leaders at the virtual summit, during which the pro-tempore presidency was transferred from Paraguay to Uruguay.
The Peronist leader said that the region's leaders were “absolutely obliged to seek a common destiny because the peoples demand that this be so."
"I hope that in a very long time we will overcome this pandemic, we will overcome it with the world, not alone, because as Pope Francis says well 'Nobody here is saved alone,'" he concluded, in comments analysts saw directed at Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro.
In his own comments, Bolsonaro said he was happy with the new direction the Mercosur was taking, a move toward a more liberalised union. The bloc, which was firmly to the left during the so-called 'Pink Tide' era in Latin America now has three conservative leaders pushing for flexibilisation on trade.
"I appeal to all presidents so that as I did, they instruct their negotiators to close the texts so that they are ready for signature this semester," said the Brazilian president, referring the EU agreement.
"The historic agreements signed in 2019 with the European Union and EFTA [European Free Trade Association] show that we are on the right track," Bolsonaro said.
"We also have all the interest in carrying out the negotiations with countries in Central America [and the Caribbean]," he added.
Also in attendance at the virtual summit were Bolivia's interim leader Jeanine Añez, Chile's Sebastián Piñera and Colombia's Iván Duque. According to unconfirmed reports, Fernández switched off his feed when Añez addressed the group, given his support for ousted leader Evo Morales.
In a joint statement, the four presidents – Fernández, Bolsonaro, Mario Abdo Benite (Paraguay) and Luis Lacalle Pou (Uruguay) – promised to review Mercosur’s common external tariff with a view to consolidating the customs union, saying that the bloc “must become simpler” and “more agile.”
Leaders also reiterated its support for Argentina’s sovereignty claim over the Malvinas Islands.