Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Wednesday called for the members of the Mercosur trade bloc to urgently seal a free-trade agreement with the European Union before negotiating with China.
Lula made the comments in Uruguay, which has been pursuing its own commercial deal with Beijing, despite opposition from Mercosur – made up of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
The EU reached a trade agreement in 2019 with Mercosur following 20 years of negotiations, but the deal has not yet been ratified.
"It is urgent and extremely important for Mercosur to reach an agreement with the EU," Lula said in Montevideo, where he met with President Luis Lacalle Pou.
"We will step up our discussions with the EU and sign this agreement so that we can then discuss a deal between China and Mercosur," he added.
The EU-Mercosur deal has generated a wave of criticism in Europe, particularly among the agricultural and ecological sectors.
Negotiated by the European Commission, it needs to be ratified individually by all 27 EU members states before it comes into effect.
Uruguay had for years pushed for greater flexibility within Mercosur but its independent negotiations with China sparked opposition from fellow members and even rumours that the bloc could break up.
Despite negotiating with China directly, Uruguay "is part of Mercosur, and that has not changed," insisted Lacalle Pou.
"There are no obstacles to informing Brazil, Argentina about what is being negotiated," said the centre-right leader.
Uruguay has also applied to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a trade agreement involving countries across eastern Asia, the Pacific, and North and South America – without the agreement of its Mercosur partners.