Emmanuel Macron’s threat of vetoing a post-Brexit trade deal is a “dangerous game” that could punish France and scupper EU unity, a top French farming official has warned.
French farmers and fishermen are “deeply concerned” about Mr Macron pushing the bloc towards a no-deal over fishing and a “level playing field” on trade rules, said Thierry Pouch, chief economist of the French Chambers of Agriculture.
Speaking to the Telegraph, he said Mr Macron’s threat of vetoing talks, mooted by his Europe minister Clément Beaune, could hurt hard-fought EU unity at a perilous moment.
“Each country reacts in its own interests as always but I get the impression that France has overstepped the mark by threatening a possible veto because that goes against the strategy of showing a united front among the 27 towards London,” said Mr Pouch. “So Macron is playing a risky game,” he warned.
“France’s intransigence…echos the behaviour of other EU member states on other issues – I’m referring to Poland and Hungary on the economic recovery plan,” he said.
Hungary and Poland have blocked the EU’s £1.6tn budget and coronavirus economic recovery package, which has clauses tying funding to respect for the rule of law. They will come under pressure to drop the veto at the December 10 EU summit.
“France is doing likewise on Brexit,” said Mr Pouch. “I think it is very dangerous for the EU to have so many states that are not pulling in the same direction.”
France has denied it is acting in self-interest alone, with Mr Beaune on Sunday saying that while it would be “naive to deny” there were “different concerns” within EU member states, Mr Barnier’s mandate was detailed and “we are sticking to it. The main players have all realigned behind the same position. There is unity on the message and on the strategy.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel “also defends our demands”, said Mr Beaune. “She knows the European market well enough to guess how the German economy would suffer from a bad agreement. The UK’s gamble on a split in the EU has failed.”
The comments came as UK-EU negotiations were still blocked over fishing rights, rules for fair trade and an enforcement mechanism, the thorniest problems since talks began eight months ago.
Asked about French demands that the UK closely aligns itself with EU rules and environmental and social standards if they want to export to the bloc, Mr Pouch said: “I find it hard to understand why France is so fixated on competition rules.”
“Can we accept that the UK lowers social norms to export? Paris refuses the idea but I’m not sure it is worth getting so fixated about as we have sufficient strengths to win market share in the UK and get over this. So I think it’s a mistake. Barnier is trying to referee this but is having an incredibly hard time.”
He also warned that the idea that a no-deal was in France’s interests was a “poor calculation”.
“If we lose some of our €2bn trade surplus to the UK on food products, it will be hard to conquer new EU markets as they will be flooded. That is what happened when we slapped an embargo on Russia in 2014.”
Mr Pouch said that three French regions were particularly concerned about losing out in case of no-deal in exports of alcoholic beverages, dairy products, fruit and vegetables and biscuits and bakery.
The northern Hauts-de-France region is fearful of a loss of export of cereals, animal feed and grain; the Grand Est region is “extremely concerned” about losing market share on bakery products and the Bordeaux region is “very worried about wine”.
His chambers estimate that customs tariffs on European – and French – dairy products to the UK, for example, could rocket by 40 per cent. “These could reach 80-100 per cent on some products, such as cheese,” he warned.
In case of no deal, he said the British would be hit by a “double whammy” of higher prices for imported goods due to customs tariffs and lower purchasing power due to a lower pound if current currency trends persist.
But that would, in turn, hurt the French, he said.
“In that case, British consumers could turn away from European products, principally French, and buy elsewhere. It’s not by chance that the UK recently signed a deal with Japan and Canada.”
“It’s in all our interests to avoid damaging trade relations, for the EU, Macron and the British. Without a deal, the UK with its €30 billion trade deficit in food and agriculture products, could be heading for food shortages in the short-term. But avoiding a no deal is in our interests too.”