Pop­ulist win could dull Europe’s ap­petite for free trade

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY JACK EWING New York Times

The chlo­ri­nated chick­ens are back. That’s a bad sign for free trade.

The birds are be­ing used in a food fight by pop­ulists in Europe who are poised to make sig­nif­i­cant gains in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions this week. Such a shift in the makeup of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment would com­pli­cate the sim­mer­ing trade con­flict be­tween the United States and Europe.

Chicken meat from the United States is rou­tinely ster­il­ized us­ing a chlo­ri­nated wash, a method forbidden in the Euro­pean Union. The American birds are banned and of­ten cited, with some dread, as an all-pur­pose jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for putting up bar­ri­ers to American prod­ucts.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has tried to put the chick­ens back on the ne­go­ti­at­ing table, no­tably with Bri­tain as it pre­pares to leave the Euro­pean Union. Euro­pean can­di­dates, both on the left and on the right, have seized the cluck­ers as a way to dra­ma­tize the stakes in the bal­lot­ing that runs from Thurs­day to Sun­day.

Among the first can­di­dates to bring up chick­ens was Ya­nis Varo­ufakis, a left-wing for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter of Greece who is run­ning for a seat in Brussels. Dur­ing an ap­pear­ance in March, Varo­ufakis vowed to block multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions that “will want to in­tro­duce chlo­ri­nated chick­ens in Europe.”

Mat­teo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s right-wing League party, did not di­rectly men­tion the birds but in­voked food anx­i­ety last week, on the eve of a rally of 11 pop­ulist lead­ers from across Europe.

“In some agri­cul­tural sec­tors, I think of meat. For ex­am­ple, we ask for ab­so­lute rigor in the check­ing of the qual­ity of the pro­duc­tion and of the prod­uct,” said Salvini, who is deputy prime min­is­ter and in­te­rior min­is­ter.

Food ac­counts for less than 3% of the $1.3 tril­lion in trade be­tween the United States and Europe, far be­hind prod­ucts like chem­i­cals, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, ve­hi­cles or machin­ery. But farm­ers are among the most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal lob­bies on both sides of the At­lantic and trade is one area where the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment wields sig­nif­i­cant power.

Pop­ulist par­ties like Varo­ufakis’ Pan-Euro­pean DiEM25 or the right-wing coali­tion led by Salvini are ex­pected to win enough sup­port to deny the two main cen­trist par­ties a ma­jor­ity in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by Te­neo, a man­age­ment con­sul­tant. The cen­trist par­ties – the con­ser­va­tive Euro­pean Peo­ple’s Party and the cen­ter-left Pro­gres­sive Al­liance of So­cial­ists and Democrats – would have to co­op­er­ate with par­ties like the Greens, who are skep­ti­cal of trade deals with the United States.

“The right­ist par­ties will play a big­ger role. The Greens will play a big­ger role,” said Peter Balas, a for­mer Hun­gar­ian diplo­mat who is a se­nior pol­icy ad­viser at Cov­ing­ton, a law firm. “It will be much more dif­fi­cult in the Par­lia­ment to have a co­he­sive ap­proach to trade.”

Food may be the least of their prob­lems.

Euro­pean man­u­fac­tur­ers have been on edge for months only to see Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump put off a de­ci­sion on im­pos­ing tar­iffs on cars im­ported from Europe, Ja­pan and South Korea. The de­lay, for six months, averted a sharp es­ca­la­tion of trade ten­sions. It brought some re­lief to Euro­pean lead­ers who feared the ef­fect of car tar­iffs on wob­bly economies.

But six months is not a long time to ne­go­ti­ate a trade deal. Trump, who has of­ten ac­cused Europe of tak­ing ad­van­tage of the United States, could eas­ily re­vive the threat of car tar­iffs if he be­lieves the Euro­peans are re­fus­ing to make con­ces­sions.

Euro­pean and U.S. ne­go­tia­tors have con­tin­ued to meet be­hind the scenes even as China has at­tracted most of the at­ten­tion. On Wed­nes­day, Ce­cilia Malm­ström, the Euro­pean trade com­mis­sioner, and Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive, were sched­uled to meet in Paris, where both were at­tend­ing meet­ings of mem­bers of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment.

“The EU is ready to start ne­go­ti­a­tions for a lim­ited trade agree­ment,” a Euro­pean Com­mis­sion spokeswoma­n said.

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion has lim­ited room to ma­neu­ver. In April, France and Belgium balked at join­ing the talks be­cause the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­fused, in 2017, to sign a global pact on cli­mate change. All 28 EU states agreed that agri­cul­ture prod­ucts should not be re­con­sid­ered and Congress may not ap­prove a deal that does not help American farm­ers.

At cam­paign stops, can­di­dates were try­ing to rally emo­tions and votes around food. Their speechi­fy­ing takes some skill be­cause that trade is lop­sided in fa­vor of Europe. The Euro­pean Union sold $10.4 bil­lion more goods like wine and cheese to the United States last year than it bought.

For ex­am­ple, Wis­con­sin cheese pro­duc­ers are not al­lowed to sell their Parme­san or feta in Europe. The names are restricted for use from re­gions in Italy and Greece that tra­di­tion­ally pro­duce them.

“Euro­peans can sell their Asi­ago, Parme­san, feta, etc., in Wis­con­sin, but cheese­mak­ers like me are blocked from sell­ing Wis­con­sin cheeses by the same names in Europe,” Er­rico Auric­chio, pres­i­dent of BelGioioso Cheese, said this month. Auric­chio heads the Con­sor­tium for Com­mon Food Names, a lob­by­ing al­liance that has asked Trump to ban im­ports of food prod­ucts that Amer­i­cans can­not sell in Europe.

Most par­ties in the race for Brussels say they fa­vor free trade but out­line con­di­tions – such as fight­ing cli­mate change – that run counter to White House poli­cies.

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