A senior US trade negotiator says President Barack Obama still hopes to conclude one of the biggest bilateral trade deals in history before he leaves the White House in January.
Speaking in Brussels on Tuesday, Katherine Kalutkeiwicz called for a swift conclusion to the Transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) negotiations.
“We need to conclude the talks this year and that is what President Obama has instructed our negotiators to do,” she told a meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).
Kalutkeiwicz, assistant chief negotiator and senior trade representative of the United States mission to the EU, was speaking after the recent conclusion of the latest round of TTIP talks.
More than 100 officials were involved in the 14th round of negotiations which took place in Brussels earlier this month. The free trade talks first started three years ago.
The deal aims to bring together the world’s two largest economic blocs by addressing all kinds of trade barriers.
But almost 3.5 million people have signed a petition to stop TTIP and CETA, a similar EU trade deal with Canada. Almost 1900 cities, municipalities, and regions across Europe have declared themselves TTIP free zones and anti-TTIP activists recently sprayed graffiti on the European Commission buildings, walls and pavements in the EU quarter in Brussels.
But, in a debate on the current state of the talks, Kalutkeiwicz said that the US “remains very committed” to concluding the talks and that further rounds of discussions would be taking place “almost on a weekly basis.”
The Brussels-based official said, “There is a big debate going on at present in the US on trade agreements and not just about TTIP. We need global trade rules and TTIP is an opportunity to shape those rules.
“There is still more work to be done on TTIP but there is the potential here to do more than has ever been done before in a trade agreement.”
Further comment came from the EU’s chief TTIP negotiator and director of DG trade, Ignacio García Bercero who, while acknowledging the upcoming presidential elections in the US, said it was important “not to sacrifice substance” merely to conclude the negotiations before the end of the current US administration.
The commission official told the meeting, “The US is our biggest trading partner and TTIP is our most important trade negotiations.”
He warned, however, that the talks were now at a “critical stage” and, with the U.S elections on the horizon, taking place at a “politically very challenging time.”
“We cannot be starry eyed on this and there are some significant gaps still in the negotiations and quite a few differences to be resolved.”
The official said he remains optimistic about the prospects of brokering an “ambitious, balanced” agreement.
Outstanding issues yet to be tackled, he said, include tariff lines, investment protection, services and sustainable development.
The TTIP issue has been further complicated by the recent Brexit result in the UK which will see Britain exit the EU and thereafter conclude its own trade deals.
On this, García Bercero recently said the EU would continue to negotiate TTIP on behalf of each of the 28 member states, including the UK.
Both García Bercero and Kalutkeiwicz were taking part in a debate organised by the external relations section of the EESC. The committee was later expected to adopt a formal “opinion” on TTIP. EU institutions, including parliament, are required by law to seek EESC opinion but are under no obligation to act upon it.
Meanwhile, speaking after a meeting with EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “with respect to whatever impact Brexit may or may not have TTIP becomes more important, because it is a large market.”
He added, “We believe there is some mythology that has been attached to it. The facts are TTIP actually works for the people of Europe. It will create jobs and protect their interests.”
Elsewhere, left wing GUE/NGL group MEPs called on the EU to stop the TTIP negotiations and rethink the whole trade agenda.
GUE/NGL coordinator on Parliament's international trade committee, Helmut Scholz, said, "The US' negotiators have not shown willingness to conclude a balanced agreement. The 14th round did not bring any breakthrough in the three year-long negotiations – which was the clear aim for the EU.”