EU piles pressure on Brazil over Amazon fires

DUBLIN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union piled pressure on Friday on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over fires raging in the Amazon basin, with Ireland and France saying they could block a trade deal with South America.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of a deforested plot of the Amazon near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil August 22, 2019/File Photo

Bolsonaro has rejected what he calls foreign interference in domestic affairs in Brazil, where vast tracts of the Amazon rainforest are ablaze in what is known as the burning season. He said the army could be sent to help fight the fires.

Environmentalists have blamed deforestation for an increase in fires and accuse the right-wing president of relaxing protection of a vast carbon trap and climate driver that is crucial to combating global climate change.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Bolsonaro had lied in playing down concerns about climate change at the G20 summit in Japan in June and that, in this light, France would oppose the deal struck between the EU and the Mercosur countries: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Dublin would vote against the deal unless Brazil acted to protect the rainforest.

Varadkar said he was very concerned at the record levels of rainforest destruction, and that the Irish government would closely monitor Brazil’s environmental actions in the two years until the Mercosur deal was ratified.

“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil does not honor its environmental commitments,” he said in a statement.

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Ireland and France would need other EU states to help form a blocking minority if they want to kill the deal, reached in June after 20 years of negotiations.

The Irish government is under pressure to defend its beef farmers, already suffering from Britain’s looming EU exit and low prices, by seeking to ensure Mercosur countries do not flood the market with cheaper beef.

But the EU executive, the European Commission, warned against burying the deal, saying it could help to put pressure on Brazil.

“This is the best way to create legally binding commitments with countries that we want to respect our environmental standards,” said Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva. “The best tool that we have is the EU-Mercosur agreement.”

She noted that the text included punitive mechanisms to be used if certain climate-related conditions were not met.

Finland, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, suggested a ban on Brazilian beef imports. Prime Minister Antti Rinne said the fires were “a threat to our whole planet, not just to Brazil or South America”.

“We must find out whether the Europeans have something to offer Brazil to help prevent this kind of fires in the future,” he added.

Finland’s finance minister said he would raise the issue with his EU peers at a meeting in Helsinki on Sept. 13-14.

Leaders of the world’s most advanced economies are also expected to discuss the matter when they meet for the G7 summit in France this weekend.

Reporting by Graham Fahy in Dublin, Anna Kauranen in Helsinki, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, William James in London, Marine Pennetier in Paris, Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey