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23rd Mar 2019

Barroso keen to start US trade talks despite spy affair

  • Obama (l) and Barroso at the G8 summit in the UK in June (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The European Commission has said EU-US free trade talks should start next week despite American snooping on EU institutions.

It said in a memo on Tuesday (2 July) that: "Whilst the beginning of EU-US trade negotiation should not be affected, the EU side will make it clear that for such a comprehensive and ambitious negotiation to succeed, there needs to be confidence, transparency and clarity among the negotiating partners."

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EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht is to lead the European delegation in the first round of talks, due in Washington next Tuesday.

His trip could still be disrupted if EU countries say No at a meeting of EU ambassadors on the spy scandal in Brussels this Thursday.

French President Francois Hollande said last week the negotiations cannot start until "trust is restored."

But an EU official told EUobserver on Wednesday that "based on the contacts we've had [with EU capitals], I don't think the French position will be followed."

He noted that commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso gave a verbal "assessment" of the situation to his commissioners on Tuesday.

All of them, including France's Michel Barnier, endorsed De Gucht's trip.

Britain's Catherine Ashton was not there because she was at an event in Brunei. But both she and the UK are firm advocates of the trade pact.

Asked if the EU is concerned that US negotiators might have access to internal EU documents on the trade talks, the EU official noted that the bloc's negotiating mandate was in any case leaked to European media "virtually as soon as it was agreed."

He added that the document is just one of many related to the talks, however. "It sets out a general framework only. It doesn't go into any details," he said.

A former US statesman, Zbigniew Brzezinski, recently indicated that both Washington and EU capitals see the trade pact as being too big to fail.

He said at the Globsec seminar in Bratislava in April that it will counter the rise of Chinese power and firm up relations among Nato allies: "It can shape a new balance between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceanic regions, while at the same time generating in the West a new vitality, more security and greater cohesion."

Meanwhile, EU politicians on Tuesday continued hand-wringing in public over the spy revelations.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told AFP he had spoken to US secretary of state John Kerry by phone.

He said: "France is not bugging the US embassy, that's for sure. France has an intelligence service which is active overseas in general, but more so on countries which are not our partners."

Despite the furore, the snooping scandal is unlikely to have caused much surprise in EU intelligence circles.

Speaking to EUobserver last year, Alain Winants, the head of the Belgian intelligence service, the VSSE, responsible for protecting EU institutions, said that when it comes to economic matters everybody spies on everybody else.

"There is one field where the difference between neutral, friendly and unfriendly services tends to disappear and that's when you are talking about the protection of economic and scientific potential. In this case, I think every service is in competition with the others," he noted.

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