The European Union and Latin America's Mercosur bloc exchanged trade offers on Wednesday, in a bid to breathe new life into long-running free trade negotiations between the two sides.
"This is the first exchange of offers since 2004, and a necessary step to move the negotiating process forward," the 28-country EU and the five-country Mercosur said in a joint statement.
"Both sides remain fully committed to this negotiation, in view of the important economic and political gains expected for both sides from a comprehensive, ambitious and balanced ... agreement," they added.
Efforts to broker a deal with the members of Mercosur - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela - have made little progress since they began in 2000.
Stumbling blocks have included European demands to exclude agricultural exports - one of the most interesting sectors to the Latin American countries - while Mercosur has been reluctant to lower its sizeable industrial tariffs, as requested by the EU.
But the arrival of a new government in Argentina, which has as a priority closer ties with Europe, opened a "new, unique window of opportunity" in the negotiations, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told the European Parliament on Tuesday.
"It's not only a must in the short term, it's an aspirational need for both the EU and Mercosur to be able to work together," Argentinian Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra said last month during a visit to Brussels.
"The offers, I'm sure, will not be satisfactory to either side and that's where you start the serious conversation," she added. "We can only get to an agreement if we start to discuss it."
Malmstrom on Tuesday spoke of Mercosur as a "fantastic export market," with European business opportunities in areas such as the automobile, machinery, chemical, pharmaceutical and luxury sectors.
But EU member states are worried that the free trade deal could harm their already struggling agricultural sectors. At a meeting in April, 20 EU agriculture ministers raised concerns about the deal.
"The [EU] offer still includes sensitive agriculture products which could destroy our agriculture sector," said Pekka Pesonen of the European farmers' organization Copa-Cogeca.
The EU and Mercosur will now examine the new offers and organize a meeting of chief negotiators "before the summer break in order to take stock of the negotiation and to prepare a schedule of meetings for the second semester of the year," their statement said.
Saturday, February 4, 2017 - 14:36
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - 06:33