Jordi Cañas interview: An instrument for change

With the EU-Mercosur Association Agreement approaching the finish line, Parliament’s rapporteur Jordi Cañas tells Ana Gallego why this may be the last chance to seal a deal with the South American trade bloc.
Jordi Cañas | Photo credit: Jordi Cañas' Office

By Ana Gallego

Ana Gallego is a reporter and audiovisual journalist at the Parliament Magazine

15 Mar 2021

They say there are two types of politician: those that are born into politics and those that find themselves drawn to it. At least that’s what Jordi Cañas believes. “In my case, I’ve been politicised since I was a young boy. My mother once told me that I used to climb up on an old ladder for painting and decorating and give speeches. Although I entered politics as a public official at the age of 40, I’ve been involved in party politics since I was 17.”

The Spanish Renew Europe deputy says his motivation to “get into politics” stems from a desire to serve and a belief that he can be an instrument for change. “I never thought I would hold public office or have any political responsibility, so I feel lucky to work in something I am passionate about. I come from a working-class background that always included a strong political commitment. It is not only about the symbolic function of public representation, it is also a real job. You get a good salary here as an MEP, and I believe that you must earn that salary. It is a huge responsibility being an elected deputy, as well as a privilege.”

“I never thought I would hold public office or have any political responsibility, so I feel lucky to work in something I am passionate about”

During the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, Cañas submitted a written question to the European Commission asking if domestic confinement measures could be eased for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He pointed out that, depending where someone is on the Autism spectrum, they can be strongly affected by many of the changes the pandemic has on their daily routine; for those with ASD, routines are crucial.

Quizzed on why he had chosen to lend his support to the autism community, he explains, “It’s our obligation as politicians. We represent not just political ideas but also citizens, and the resources we have in the European Parliament allow us to highlight concerns and issues facing groups that are often invisible in the mainstream EU political debate. We must speak up for them, not only for people with ASD but also for those with mental illnesses.”

“There are many people in this context who sometimes appear to drop off the radar. With lockdown measures of the magnitude we are experiencing, ignoring these particular groups’ concerns in a situation such as confinement, merely highlights how great the distance between politicians and reality is. I am not an expert, but I sympathise, because we can break these glass ceilings and make issues more visible. Sometimes you can’t do a lot more, but at least you can stimulate public debate and put issues on record. This is why I do this job, and I go home knowing it is worthwhile.”

The Spanish deputy, born in Barcelona, admits to often feeling quite sad when asked about his homeland. “As a Catalan, what worries me most is the breakdown of the concept of Catalonia as a dynamic, open, inclusive, respectful, modern, attractive society. I’m worried about the deterioration of political life in Catalonia, motivated by separatists who have managed to divide society and influence some people into believing that democracy no longer means respecting the rule of law or coexistence.”

“As a Catalan, what worries me most is the breakdown of the concept of Catalonia as a dynamic, open, inclusive, respectful, modern, attractive society. I’m worried about the deterioration of political life in Catalonia”

Cañas goes on, “Furthermore, when this coexistence contract is broken, there are economic consequences. This is very unfair, because in the end those politicians who have caused this situation will continue to live very well and will still likely control the public administration. Yet there are many citizens who are going to lose job opportunities in a region that, until a few years ago, was a centre for attracting investment and talent. Unfortunately, here in Brussels, people now no longer ask me what the weather is like in Barcelona, they ask what the situation is there. And that saddens me.”

Turning to the recent International Trade Committee hearing on the EUMercosur Association Agreement, Cañas says he believes that it’s “probably the best trade agreement the EU has ever signed”. After 20 years in the making, we are now at a turning point in the talks with Mercosur. This Association Agreement not only includes a free trade deal but also establishes a political dialogue and cooperation mechanism. However, it is the trade agreement that has sparked considerable debate. Cañas, Parliament’s rapporteur on the EU-Mercosur Agreement, believes the trade section is “formidable”.

He explains, “Europeans should know that numerous studies predict exports of dairy product will grow between 91 and 121 percent, alcoholic beverages and wines between 36 and 38 percent, textiles between 311 and 324 percent, and pharmaceuticals and chemicals by 47 percent. Also, machinery exports are expected to rise by between 78 and 100 percent, electronics between 109 and 149 percent, and vehicles and their parts - which we manufacture in Germany, France, Spain, and Italy - and which employ hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of direct and indirect workers in the EU – by between 95 and 114 percent more.”

Questioned about the environmental concerns surrounding this agreement, particularly the thousands of fires that continue to rage across the Amazon, he replies, “If we don’t sign the Agreement with Brazil and create a framework of shared obligations, we won’t have any instruments to extinguish the fires. How else can we make Mercosur governments more accountable to their climate commitments? You cannot put out fires in the Amazon with political declarations, but you can with instruments like the Agreement, which the Bolsonaro government has signed. It is a very sound agreement, and it is the beginning of a relationship. But it is important to point out that there is no evidence that proves that ratifying the agreement means more deforestation. There is already deforestation without an agreement.”

Cañas also criticises what he believes are perceived double standards surrounding EU trade agreements, “The problem is that the EU has to determine its trade policy strategy with the world. If we demand one thing, we demand it from everyone. For example, we signed an agreement with the US after the Trump administration had abandoned the Paris Climate Agreement, meanwhile Brazil remains a signatory to the Paris Agreement and is committed to achieving decarbonisation by 2050. We have to clearly distinguish between people and countries. Agreements are signed by countries and blocs, not by national governments. Brazil is not Jair Bolsonaro, in the same way that the US was not Donald Trump. So, should we not sign an agreement with a country that is in the Paris Agreement because we perhaps do not believe they will comply, but be happy to sign another deal with a country that has left?”

“We cannot afford to go backwards and lose more influence in Latin America. If China signs an agreement with Mercosur, or if the UK does, Europe is going to have a serious problem”

He also believes there are misconceptions, as well as a lack of understanding, of the countries that comprise Mercosur. “We are talking about Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. We are not talking about the developing world here. I think perhaps that some people don’t understand who we are negotiating with and may be confused because we are dealing with southern hemisphere countries. These are countries that - on many issues - are at the same level, or even above, European standards, so I respect them. I have been insisting for months, even with EU Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis, that any significant additional commitments must be shared and should oblige both sides. Because who says we are not going to breach the Paris Agreement? If so, will there be sanctions on European countries or only on Mercosur members?”

Regarding concerns raised over the protection of human rights, or lack of any in the Mercosur Agreement, he says, “There are people who are legitimately against trade agreements and trade, and then there are people who use the example of Amazonia in a self-serving way. We must always remember that trade exists; even if there were no agreement we would continue to trade with Mercosur, with China or with Vietnam. Are they going to ask for additional commitments regarding human rights or environmental protection from China before ratifying the EU-China investment agreement? Or, because it benefits big multinationals, are we ever so slightly circumventing the human rights framework as with other agreements? Are we too strong with the weak and too weak with the strong? Is there not a bit of hypocrisy surrounding those who demand standards in some countries while not demanding them in others?”

Moving on to the position of farmers and the agricultural sector in the agreement, Cañas says, “European trade unions must try to make this a balanced agreement: one that is also in the interest of their Mercosur counterparts. Everyone, from governments like that of Bolsonaro to the Peronists agree; the Mercosur countries are defending the agreement.”

In numbers, he maintains, “On beef quotas, the increase in imports is minimal: around two steaks per European per year. There is also an EU programme of support for those agricultural sectors that may be affected. Agricultural exports will increase, and we have an agri-food industry in Europe that can benefit from this. Perhaps we lack the perspective to see that the agri-food industry is not simply about the primary farming sector but the food processing industry as a whole, and EU agri-food processing exports are significant. We often buy products from Mercosur countries, process them, and sell them back.”

“There is a part of European agriculture that is going to benefit because we don’t have enough raw materials here. It will certainly not harm Europe’s livestock sector. However, funds will be made available, and if they need to be increased, they will be. But protecting our farmers does not mean we cannot make agreements. More than 350 products from across the EU will be protected by geographic indicators.“

“There will be some collateral damage, and we will have to identify where problems lie and agree measures to help mitigate or eliminate them, but that is our responsibility. Let us identify them and try to solve them, but let’s not avoid agreements because of them. We cannot sign at the expense of farmers, but we cannot stop other major sectors benefitting from this agreement.”

Cañas believes this may be the last opportunity for the EU and Mercosur to reach a deal. With both blocs struggling to contend with the economic consequences of the pandemic, he believes ratifying the Agreement could be crucial to restarting their economies. “We cannot afford to go backwards and lose more influence in Latin America. If China signs an agreement with Mercosur, or if the UK does, Europe is going to have a serious problem. Both are knocking at Mercosur’s door. However, the Mercosur countries are waiting, because they want to sign with us first. They want to have a partnership with Europe because it guarantees and promotes their participation at a global level. It integrates them within European regulatory frameworks that are world leading, and it allows them to sell all over the world.”

“If Europe turns its back on Mercosur by rejecting the agreement, we will send a terrible global message and we will lose a fantastic opportunity to consolidate our relationship with all of America. If we sign the Mercosur Agreement, we will have deals with all the countries of Latin America. But if we are not in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, if we are outside 85 percent of the population of Latin America, then we will leave them in the hands of others who don’t and won’t have the same concern for the environment as we do. There is always room for improvement. So let’s ask them what additional commitments they want, but let’s ratify it because if it’s not us then others will and, in a few years, we will live to regret it.”

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