- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The European Union’s top trade negotiator said an ambitious trans-Atlantic free trade pact with the United States remains on track despite bipartisan opposition to the deal in Congress.

“I know that despite our heavy political calendar this year, Europe is ready to make that commitment,” said Karel De Gucht, European commissioner for trade. “And I have every confidence that the U.S. will join us.”

The European trade official was in Washington this week for more talks with the Obama administration on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. He arrived two weeks after Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, appeared to shoot down any chance to give President Obama the “fast-track” authority considered critical to negotiating a massive and complex trade deal with the 28-nation bloc.

“I’m against fast track,” Mr. Reid told reporters days after Mr. Obama appealed for support in his State of the Union address. “Everyone would be well-advised just to not push this right now.”

Mr. De Gucht did not comment directly on Mr. Reid’s remarks, which many analysts suggested torpedoed Mr. Obama’s hopes for the trans-Atlantic agreement and a major trade pact with a group of Pacific Rim nations this year. However, the EU negotiator told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that the agreement in the end rests on whether Congress will grant fast-track authority to the president.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman “realizes very well that, if we are in the endgame, it would be practically impossible to close a deal if there is no [fast-track] at that moment in time. That’s very clear,” Mr. De Gucht told the newspaper.

Under the fast-track process, Congress cannot amend a proposed trade agreement, but only give an up-or-down vote on the pact as negotiated. The opposition to granting Mr. Obama fast-track authority is bipartisan, with many liberal Democrats skeptical of free trade joining conservative Republicans skeptical of Mr. Obama.

The U.S. and European Union have met three times to negotiate free trade, which supporters say will lower barriers, open markets and create millions of jobs in the two of the world’s largest trading powers. The next meeting is scheduled for March in Brussels.

The Center for Economic Policy Research estimates that the trade deal would mean $164 billion in economic growth for the EU and $130 billion for the United States by 2027.

Mr. De Gucht said Tuesday that three things need to be tackled promptly in order for the economy to respond quickly: market access, rules and regulatory differences between Washington and Brussels.

“Buckling down to take all of these areas forward will require effort,” he said. “So we had better know why we are doing it. The answer for me is very clear: growth and jobs on the one hand and strategic vision on the other.”

Besides fast-track authority, the trans-Atlantic talks have encountered other problems, including differing consumer preferences in Europe and the U.S.

Recently, a new type of genetically modified corn won approval by the EU Council of Ministers, in the midst of EU’s stringent approval process of genetically modified organisms. GMO foods are much more common in the United States.

Mr. De Gucht said the basic legislation in countries signing the trade deal would not change, and imports and exports would follow the rules already defined within the country. For example, the United States would export hormone-free beef to adhere to the law.

“The potential sticking points, the ones that could undermine TTIP, are the ones where we have real cultural clashes,” Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, told the Deutsche Welle.

“Wherever you have a conflict, a real cultural difference in consumer patterns, consumer protection ideas and cultural issues — that’s where we’re not only talking about regulatory affairs and legal questions but about real political challenges. And those are the ones that could undermine [an agreement],” he said.

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