For the European Union's biggest free-traders, a major obstacle to striking new deals has become easier to overcome: Emmanuel Macron.
As elections approached last weekend, the French president wanted to avoid upsetting his farmers by backing new trade deals with agricultural powers like Latin America, Australia and New Zealand.
Macron's reluctance was a particular problem for countries with a pro-free trade agenda - not only because France is a major EU heavyweight, but also because it is currently in charge of the EU Council. EU, which holds the rotating presidency. Some officials in Brussels have blamed the French for the lack of progress towards finalizing trade deals in recent months.
All of this is changing. Macron is back safe and sound at the Elysee Palace and while the French agricultural lobby will still weigh on his calculations, he will soon hand over the leadership of the Council to other countries more fond of trade.
The upcoming Czech and Swedish presidencies will see two EU countries that strongly believe in the benefits of free trade take the top of the bloc's political agenda. And they can't wait to get started.
“We need strong bilateral and regional trade agreements,” Swedish Trade Minister Anna Hallberg told POLITICO. "We can do much more to strengthen the EU economically and geopolitically if we better use our potential to shape the global trade agenda."
Hallberg said she looks forward to the presidencies of the Czech Republic, starting in July this year, and Sweden, starting next January, to push the trade agenda forward. She said there was a lot of work to be done to conclude and ratify a number of trade agreements. "We are quite impatient. The EU process on trade deals is too slow."
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A diplomat from a third country said that the Czech Republic and Sweden are very supportive of the EU's free trade agreement with this third country, and now expect the two presidencies make as much progress as possible on new agreements.
Russia's war in Ukraine is also giving new impetus to EU free traders. For them, this shows that the EU must open up to other parts of the world to diversify its suppliers and not be too dependent on single sources of supply. But a diplomat stressed that it had been months since anything had happened on the bilateral trade agenda. "Now is the time to change that."
Companies are also increasingly eager to gain access to new markets, especially given Russia's war in Ukraine.
“There is a lack of political leadership in some countries to ratify trade agreements. It's up to the managers to explain the benefits and take responsibility,” said Anna Stellinger of the Confederation of Swedish Business.
Backlog of trade agreements
A backlog of trade agreements is waiting to be concluded or ratified by the European Union.
Several diplomats from these third countries said they had received positive signals from the European Commission indicating that the discussions would accelerate again in the coming months and especially after the end of the French Presidency of the Council of the EU in June.
Officials and diplomats are seeking to ratify modernized trade pacts with Chile and Mexico and strike a deal with like-minded New Zealand. Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern could come to Brussels to close the deal early in the summer.
"In the current geopolitical context and with upcoming presidencies of states open to trade...I expect the trade agenda to be reinvigorated," said centre-right MEP Anna-Michelle Asimakopoulou. "We need to see trade deals cross the finish line in 2022. I still see Chile, New Zealand and Mexico as the most likely."
Other chords may be more difficult. EU negotiations with Australia, for example, have been embroiled in a political row between France and Australia, which has delayed negotiations.
The most difficult will be to ratify the EU trade agreement with the Latin American Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. NGOs, lawmakers and some countries like France and Austria have opposed the deal – which the European Commission reached in 2020 – on environmental grounds due to the continued deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.