EU-Mercosur trade talks close with key gaps remaining

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Negotiators for the European Union and Latin American bloc Mercosur have concluded two weeks of talks in Brussels on a free trade deal with no clear breakthrough and no formal offers made.

The two sides’ negotiating teams have agreed to continue discussions in Asuncion, Paraguay, in the week beginning Feb. 19, a Commission spokesman said on Friday.

“There is still some work to be done,” he told a Commission news conference.

The EU signaled last week that it could open up its market to more beef from Mercosur countries Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, raising its potential offer for beef access to 99,000 tonnes per year from a previous 70,000 tonnes, people close to the talks said.

The people said it was not clear how the tonnage would be split, such as between more expensive chilled and cheaper frozen meat, and whether tariffs would still apply.

Beef has been a key demand for the Mercosur countries, but a concern for EU farming nations such as Ireland and France.

“We are very watchful,” French Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert told French lawmakers on Jan. 31, saying the amount of beef offered should be kept to a minimum.

A European Commission source said there was still some ground to cover.

For the EU, key issues are market opening for cars and car parts and dairy products, access for European companies to public tenders and maritime services, as well as protection of food and drink names, such as champagne or Parma ham, which the EU says can only be used for products made in particular areas.

In terms of tariff reduction, it could be the EU’s most lucrative trade deal to date, with the savings potentially three times greater than for deals with Canada and Japan combined.

A Mercosur source said Latin American negotiators had also signaled some willingness to move towards meeting EU demands, without making formal offers.

“Both sides have a clearer idea of how much they can get in this deal,” the source said. “There is some expectation that we can nail this, but it depends on the political decision-makers.”

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Toby Chopra