BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe and South America hope to revive stalled free-trade talks in early April with formal offers on how far they are willing to open up their economies to foreign goods, Argentina’s trade minister said on Wednesday.
After more than a decade of leftist rule in Argentina, the new pro-business government in Buenos Aires offers the Mercosur trade bloc led by Brazil its best chance in years to complete a deal that has faced multiple setbacks since its launch in 1999.
“Argentina is ready to move forward,” Miguel Braun told Reuters during a visit to Brussels to meet EU trade officials to discuss trade talks. “For Mercosur, this is a priority.”
Attempts to relaunch the trade talks, most recently at an EU-Latin American summit in Santiago in 2013, failed because of Argentine policies to protect local industry, diplomats say.
Brazil and its other Mercosur partners, Paraguay and Uruguay, were unwilling to do a trade deal without Buenos Aires, despite the urging of Brazilian business.
Argentina is Brazil’s closest partner, but until the November election of Argentine President Mauricio Macri, it was one of the most protectionist members of the Group of 20 leading economies.
The so-called ‘exchange of offers’ would set out the duty-free access each side is willing to consider and then allow negotiators to draw up a trade deal designed to encompass 750 million people and $130 billion (£93.3 billion) in annual trade.
The foreign minister of Uruguay, which holds the rotating Mercosur presidency, will visit Brussels on April 8 and the exchange of offers could take place then, and no later than the middle of this year, Braun said.
“The Uruguayan foreign minister is coming here specifically with a proposal to exchange offers,” Braun said. “It would be fantastic if they can get that moving then, we cannot move quickly enough.”
The Uruguay minister’s visit follows EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s trip to Argentina earlier this month, when she met Macri and pledged EU support for a free-trade deal.
While the EU and Mercosur have already held many rounds of trade talks over the years, both sides are eager to avoid a repeat of 2004, when the offers made on both sides were considered too timid, failing to liberalise flows in trade and services and resulting in a collapse of talks.
The market access proposals involve lists of imports that each side would be prepared to liberalise in negotiations. The European Union is looking for more than 90 percent of goods and sectors to be opened up, EU officials said.
Difficult areas include access to Mercosur for European manufactured goods and EU access for Mercosur’s agricultural products, which today face high EU farm subsidies.
Reporting by Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Gareth Jones