As negotiations began Monday in Washington on a proposed blockbuster U.S.-European Union trade pact that would connect the largest economies of the Western world, activists warned against any deal that undermines environmental, labor, food or financial safeguards.
In a press call, environmental and labor groups expressed concerns that negotiators are focusing only on the positives of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — a deal backers say could boost each economy by more than $100 billion a year.
“We caution against this unwarranted optimism,” said Celeste Drake, a trade policy specialist with the AFL-CIO, America’s biggest labor union. “There are significant risks.”
But the Obama administration’s Michael Froman, who is leading U.S. negotiations, said the trade agreement has been “a long time coming” — President Obama first announced it during his State of the Union address in February — and urged officials on both sides to complete the deal “on one tank of gas.”
“We have the opportunity to complement one of the greatest alliances of all time with an equally compelling economic relationship,” Mr. Froman said Monday in remarks kicking off the negotiations many expect will last through the end of 2014.
The proposed trade pact has received support from legislators on both sides of the aisle in the U.S., and it’s also popular in Europe, where leaders see the deal as an opportunity to jump-start struggling economies.
Backers point to a study by the Center for Economic Policy Research that shows the U.S.-EU trade agreement would create millions of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic and generate an estimated $123 billion a year in the U.S. and $154 billion a year in the EU.
Bipartisan support in Washington could come in handy for negotiators, considering the last time the U.S. passed a trade agreement with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, it took more than five years and two administrations to complete.
This time, the White House feels there is more “political will” to get the deal done.
“We go into this exercise with eyes wide open,” Mr. Froman said. “We know there will be challenges. But we also know that there is strong political will at the highest levels on both sides of the Atlantic determined to stay focused and get this done.
“We have an opportunity to spur growth and to generate significant increases in the already substantial number of jobs supported by trans-Atlantic trade and investment.”
On Monday, negotiators discussed investment, government procurement, cross-border services, textiles, rules of origin, energy and raw materials, and legal issues. On Tuesday, they plan to discuss market access issues, as well as sanitary and phytosanitary measures.
Ms. Drake, whose organization has been more open to the trade deal than others because it could create jobs, said the AFL-CIO has concerns that the pact could suppress wages and degrade labor markets.
Environmental groups are even more skeptical.
“The Sierra Club is very concerned that our climate, our water, and our air could be put at risk by this sweeping trade agreement,” said Ilana Solomon, a representative of the environmental group, which organized Monday’s phone news conference.
Bill Waren, an analyst at Friends of the Earth, another environmental group, said the proposed trade deal could “roll back” decades of progress that the EU has made protecting human health and the environment from toxic chemicals.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” he said.
Food safety groups are also raising concerns that a U.S.-EU deal could ease regulations in Europe while locking the U.S. into a less-than-ideal system.
“We don’t want to be locked into lower standards,” said Karen Hansen-Kuhn, international program director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
But pro-business groups are praising the Obama administration for pushing the deal.
“With the U.S.-EU trade negotiations officially underway, we are one step closer to further expanding and strengthening a very important economic relationship and establishing an agreement that would boost economic growth, create American jobs and increase exports,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
“There is much work to be done, and we are hopeful that significant progress will be made this week.”