24th Jan 2021

Frustrated EU seeks strategy for US trade talks

  • A pro-TTIP poster at the Hannover Fair visited by US president Obama in April. "Everyone understand it is getting urgent," an EU official said. (Photo: Reuters)

EU trade ministers will have two models of free-trade agreements on their table when they meet on Friday (13 May): the deal between the EU and Canada agreed in February, and the one it is still painfully negotiating with the US.

Ministers will discuss the outcome of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada and expect to sign it when Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau comes to Brussels in the autumn.

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  • Opposition to TTIP is growing in Europe (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

"It is a good, even a very good agreement," an EU diplomat said.

In addition to a permanent investor court system agreed at the last minute in the talks, the CETA satisfies the Europeans on the issue of public procurements.

European companies in Canada will be able to bid for procurements at the federal level but also in the provinces.

The EU-Canada deal is a model of what the Europeans would like with the US. In reality, the EU-US talks are very far from achieving such an agreement.

Both sides are still committed to achieving a "high quality agreement" before the end of the year, according to an EU official.

But when the European Commission briefs ministers about the 13th round of negotiations that took place last month, "they will have questions on how to move on", the official said.

Almost three years after the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) began, they "are not making much progress", the EU diplomat said.

"We made progress on tariffs at the start. Then we made some progress on regulatory cooperation," he said, adding that on other issues discussions were stuck.

"This is getting really worrying," he said.


On public procurement, the diplomat said that the first US proposal was “below our most pessimistic expectations”, and they had not yet made a second offer.

“They'll keep it for the political phase of the talks,” the diplomat explained.

He said “the frustration is big among member states”.

On services, the US has made it a prerequisite that the EU drops its reservations, the exceptions it wants to include in the deal, in particular to protect public services.

"This is completely unacceptable," the diplomat said.

The ministers' meeting takes place 10 days after the publication by Greenpeace of the US negotiating positions, which raised concerns about the possibility of an agreement and about the concessions the EU could be asked to make on its environmental and health standards.

European public opinion seem to be increasingly opposed to TTIP and French president Francois Hollande even said he would "say No at this stage" to an agreement.

'It is getting urgent'

Friday's meeting will be an opportunity for EU member states and the commission to discuss a strategy to get out of the deadlock.

"Irrespective of the Greenpeace publication, everyone understands it is getting urgent," the EU official said.

"There will be questions from ministers to the commission on what needs to be done, how can we come to a good and convincing result.

"In the course of discussion it will become clear to everyone what will be the possibilities and the priorities in the coming months."

The next round of talks will be held in July in Brussels. If both sides still want to close a deal before the end of the year, they will have to conclude the so-called middle game this summer before entering the "end game", the last round of talks at a more political level.

But the EU diplomat said negotiators were still "very, very far" from that stage.

"It is very doubtful that we can finish off before the end of the year," he said.

'Not the same ambition'

At the end of the day, the diplomat said, the TTIP project could stumble over a conceptual difference over what the EU and the US expect from a deal.

Last October, after five years of negotiation, the US concluded a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 countries, including Canada.

The deal covers sectors included in the TTIP talks such as regulations for agriculture, intellectual property, the environment, and investment, but it is not as far reaching as TTIP was meant to be.

But both the Republican and the Democrat frontrunners for the US presidential election next year, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, oppose TPP as it is, and ratification by the Congress looks difficult. That makes the US administration more cautious about the content of TTIP.

Today, the EU diplomat said, the US says it cannot offer things that are not included in the TTP.

"We think CETA, they think TPP," he said. "This is not the same ambition, this is not the same thing."

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