Argentina’s outgoing government says that the necessary conditions are not yet in place to sign the long-delayed free-trade agreement between Mercosur and the European Union.
The remarks, delivered on Sunday by President Alberto Fernández ahead of his final week in office, come after a flurry of reports about attempts to secure the deal before the end of the year.
But in a series of interviews published on Sunday, Fernández and Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero said that Argentina would not sign the current version of the text.
Both officials will lose their positions on December 10, when libertarian president-elect Javier Milei will be sworn into office.
Fernández reiterated that he considers the agreement to be positive. "Geopolitically it is correct" and he would like to "sign it," he told the Télam state news agency in an interview.
However, "certain conditions must be established that allow us to sustain and grow our industries," he said in the radio interview, hinting at unrest at some of the accord’s proposed conditions.
"I want to negotiate something that is useful to Argentines," he concluded.
Fernández is due to take part in a Mercosur summit of national presidents on Thursday, his last international event before exiting the Casa Rosada.
In recent weeks the Brazilian government – which currently holds the pro-tempore presidency of the South American trade bloc – and officials from the European Union have indicated that the event in Rio de Janeiro could be crucial in closing an agreement that has been under negotiation for more than 20 years.
However, Cafiero said in an interview with the local daily La Nación published on Sunday that his country would not sign the pact in its present form, dashing expectations raised by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Uruguay's Luis Lacalle Pou, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
"The talks will continue and a lot of work has been done, but the conditions are not in place to sign the agreement," stressed the foreign minister.
Negotiations over the long-trailed trade deal were concluded in 2019, but fresh differences between the two sides, especially over environmental protections, have risen to the fore.
The accord would have a negative impact on Mercosur's industry, without bringing benefits for its agricultural exports, which are limited by very restrictive quotas and subject to unilateral environmental regulations that expose them to future vulnerability," Cafiero explained bluntly.
Last Friday, in a post on social media, Lula said from the COP28 climate conference in Dubai that Mercosur and the European Union were "close to closing" the free-trade deal.
The Brazilian leader, who will lead the Mercosur summit, met on the sidelines of the environmental summit with Von der Leyen and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who holds the presidency of the EU Council while in Dubai.
The Brazilian leader and Von der Leyen agreed that "there had been significant progress in the meetings between the technical teams of the two sides" in recent days, Lula’s team said in a statement.
"The EU is committed to closing this agreement," Von der Leyen said in a post on social media that included a photo of her and Lula.
Sánchez also celebrated the meeting in a post on social media, which he said would “give political impetus to the agreement."
On Friday, Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou said he expected "good news" on the issue in Rio de Janeiro.
In contrast, Cafiero said that new environmental rules adopted by the European Union in 2019 had already led to "higher costs and restrictions for Mercosur exports of food and other products."
The European "Green Pact" had become a stumbling block in talks, with strong criticism from Brazil.
Mercosur nations have rejected "green protectionism" and responded with its own demands, such as the creation of an environmental fund to support developing countries.
Argentina's president-elect has been in favour of closing the free-trade deal. But Cafiero's statements reflect a stance Argentina has advocated for years and come after French President Emmanuel Macron also curbed optimism on Saturday.
Macron, who met with Lula in Dubai, announced that he will travel to Brazil in March precisely to discuss the EU-Mercosur agreement, which he questioned in its current form.
The agreement is "completely contradictory" to what President Lula "is doing in Brazil," he said.
The pact "does not take biodiversity and climate into account" and has been reduced to a "badly patched up" agreement, which "dismantles tariffs" introduced in the past, he said.
"Each country is entitled to its own position. It has always been more difficult to reach an agreement with France because it is more protectionist. The European Union does not have the same position," Lula responded.