Leaked EU-Brazil trade deal documents raise Brexit environment fears

A new EU trade deal with South America gives the UK an idea of what to expect during Brexit trade negotiations

Bulls walk at a cattle feed lot in the Brazilian Amazon. The Mercosur deal is controversial in Europe over its offer of 70,000 tonnes of additional beef quota for Latin American exporters. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

As the UK gears up to negotiate a raft of new international trade deals, EU negotiators are already busy meeting their Latin American counterparts to discuss a major new deal with Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Now hundreds of undisclosed documents from the EU’s secret negotiations – obtained and published by Greenpeace Netherlands – shows the pressure to change health and environmental rules in its dealings with the so called Mercosur bloc.

The UK government may have to consider whether to sacrifice British beef to get cars into South America 

The EU has repeatedly committed to enforce environmental standards through its trade deals – not least in its negotiations with the UK.

Yet the documents, which are from July of this year, suggest the ‘precautionary principle’ a rule at the heart of EU law designed to ensure the high standards of products sold – may prove hard to enforce under the agreement which opens the EU and UK up to substantially higher imports of beef from South America.

“Although the precautionary principle is legally enshrined in EU law, the consolidated text of the Mercosur agreement does not provide adequate provisions protecting its application,” according to Thomas Fritz, a German analyst who has written several books critical of free-trade.

“This of particular concern, first, due to the huge amount of Mercosur agricultural exports destined for the EU market.”

Barry Gardiner, the UK’s shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, says: “It is very worrying that these leaked documents show a move away from the precautionary principle and a potential risk to our high food and environmental standards.”

He added: “This is a critical issue for the UK as the Trade Bill introduced in Parliament last month proposes to create new trade agreements based on those trade deals which have been signed during our membership to the EU; even if these deals have not been ratified.”

Under the UK’s draft trade legislation the ministers would be able to ratify an agreed trade deal with Brazil without consulting parliament. The legislation would also allow ministers to agree new terms, potentially watering down standards even further.

Jude Kirton-Darling, an MEP for the North East of England, says: “The British conservatives’ agenda for deregulated markets means that we’re at risk of losing some of the protection we currently get from the EU.  This is a very worrying prospect indeed in the context of future UK trade deal.”

What is the precautionary principle?

It is a legal principle that is applied in the European Union. Essentially, the onus is placed on governments, producers or manufacturers to protect people and the environment when there are reasonable grounds for concern, even where the evidence of harm is “insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain”.


The only reference to the precautionary principle in the Mercosur deal appears in Article 10 of the chapter on Trade and Sustainable Development.

Here the EU calls for its inclusion: “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradations”

The clause will be hard to enforce because it is included in a section of the agreement with no state-to-state dispute and enforcement system. And partially because it may also allow room for interpretation.

In fact, even if the precautionary principle did make it into the chapters covered by the dispute system, the Mercosur countries have a history of opposing its application.

All of them have been third parties to the successful WTO complaint against the EU’s one-time moratorium on the approval of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Meat and Brexit

The Mercosur deal is already controversial in the EU over its offer of 70,000 tonnes of additional beef quota for Latin American exporters, with the Irish Farmers Association saying it will “sacrifice sustainable production in Europe.”

The bloc is one of the EU’s dominant suppliers of things like beef, poultry meat and soybean meal. And it is pushing for more quota still.

John Royle, chief livestock adviser for the National Farmers Union, told Unearthed: “The EU has stringent regulations on meat products – environmental, food safety, animal welfare, traceability – and the view from farming groups in Europe is ‘we don’t need this extra beef, we don’t believe it meets our high standards’”.

Earlier this year the United States banned fresh beef imports from Brazil after inspections uncovered public health concerns, unsanitary conditions and animal health issues.

Kirton-Darling says: “Agriculture was always going to be contentious in the EU-Mercosur trade deal, with the Commission making no mystery of its intention to use increased market access as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.”

“When it comes to food safety, exported products must always comply with the standards of the importing party. The real concern here is rather is with domestic authorities, and whether they upholds sound standards, though it should be noted that the Commission has always defended the precautionary principle.”

The country’s meat industry is reportedly enthusiastic about the possibility of a free trade agreement with the UK after it leaves the EU.

But, as Royle observes, “there are still questions over existing EU-third country quotas and how these are allocated post-Brexit. Will the UK still be obligated to take more than its fair share of those imports?”

“What you get is meat products made with a much lower cost of production and to lower standards, with less regulation, that could enter the UK market very competitively, which affects the livelihood of British farmers. We are very sensitive to cheap, inferior imports”

Barry Gardiner agrees; “This potentially damaging agreement between the EU and Mercosur, if signed, could be replicated to the detriment of British farmers, British consumers and British standards. This would be done by ministerial fiat rather than proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny.”

The UK seems keen to strike a deal with Brazil, with Unearthed last month revealing that a UK trade minister lobbied the Brazilian government on behalf of oil giants Shell and BP.

Royle says: “Government will be considering when entering into new trade deals with third countries, should we sacrifice British beef to get cars into South America?”