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KLECKNER: Ending flaky trade barriers

A new U.S. pact with Europe could jump-start sagging economies

- - Monday, September 2, 2013

Cornflakes are one of the most popular breakfast foods in the world, and 15 years ago, Norway banned them.

Technically, its government outlawed the importation of cornflakes that were fortified by vitamins and iron. Officials at that time claimed that Norwegians didn't need the extra nutrition.

It was an absurd case of protectionism, obvious to all and eventually overturned by a court. In the meantime, however, it disrupted the flow of ordinary trade, frustrating to both producers and consumers.

I think it is important that we do what we can to avoid this nonsense in the first place. That's exactly what a good free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union would accomplish. The movement of goods and services across the Atlantic Ocean is currently worth almost $1 trillion per year. With fewer barriers, that value would rise. What might be most important of all, for the first time in a long time, the European leadership appears committed to negotiating and completing a comprehensive agreement.

I've been involved in trade talks for decades, both as a participant and as an observer. The Europeans appear more eager than ever to come to the bargaining table. Don't just take my word for it. Here's what the Economist said earlier this year: "A free-trade pact has never had such support in the chancelleries of Europe."

U.S. negotiators must seize this rare opportunity to push ahead on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

A majority of Americans already support more trade with the EU — 58 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. In Europe, however, even bigger majorities want the same thing — 75 percent of Italians and 65 percent of the British. Seven out of 10 Italians and British even back the complete elimination of tariffs between the United States and Europe, along with more than half of Germans and Poles.

These positive attitudes have many sources, beginning with Europe's weak economy. Lawmakers around the world are looking for ways to stimulate growth without spending taxpayer dollars. Trade is an attractive and viable option. Moreover, the collapse of the Doha round of world trade talks has encouraged leaders to look for new ways to bring down barriers.

"We intend to move forward fast," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso of Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks in June. "Huge economic benefits are expected from reducing red tape, avoiding divergent regulations for the future."

On top of that, anti-Americanism in Europe is receding. Just five years ago, only 42 percent of the French had a favorable view of the United States. Today, that figure is 69 percent. Polls of Germans and Spaniards also show dramatic reversals in attitudes.

There are plenty of challenges. Some look easy to resolve, such as Europe's insistence that imported cherries show no evidence of brown-rot fungus, as well as separate proof that growers have employed field controls to prevent the disease. Cherries traded within Europe don't have to meet any of these standards.

Other differences will be more difficult. The EU currently bans pork produced with ractopamine, a feed additive commonly used in the United States. It also restricts chicken washed with water that includes chlorine, another routine — and safe — U.S. practice.

Europe's non-scientific approach to food safety represents one of the deepest divisions between the two sides — and one of the greatest aggravations for Americans, whose food-safety standards are both first-rate and more accepting of new technologies. For years, Europe has used food safety as an all-purpose excuse for protectionist policies that exclude U.S. products from its markets. I'll never forget when the Europeans required U.S. workers to wear white rubber boots in U.S. slaughterhouses that wanted to export meat to the EU. Not red or black or green boots — white boots — just like the workers wore in European slaughterhouses.

The most significant challenge, however, may be the acceptance of biotechnology as a tool in crop production. Europe has refused to join the gene revolution that has transformed agriculture around the world, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. All the while, many of its officials have maintained a maddening posture of extreme sanctimony. A lot of them know better, and will say so in private conversation.

So the current moment may provide an opportunity not only to conclude a trade agreement with Europeans who are ready to make a deal, but also, perhaps, to nudge the EU toward a more sensible, science-based approach on technology.

This may be a once-in-my-lifetime opportunity. Let's take advantage of it.

Dean Kleckner is chairman emeritus for Truth About Trade & Technology and member of the TATT Global Farmer Network.