EU says it's ready to start trade negotiations with U.S.
'I think it can go quite quickly,' European trade commissioner says
European Union countries gave final clearance on Monday to start formal talks on a trade agreement with the United States after months of delay due to resistance from France.
In the end, the EU governments voted by a clear majority to approve the negotiating mandates proposed by the European Commission, with France voting against and Belgium abstaining.
The commission, which co-ordinates trade policy for the 28-member EU, will start two sets of negotiations — one to cut tariffs on industrial goods, the other to make it easier for companies to show that products meet EU or U.S. standards.
It needed backing from the EU member states to do so.
"We are ready as soon as they are," European trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said, adding that she would now reach out to U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer to see when talks could begin.
"We are definitely determined to do everything we can to finish this during the Juncker commission," she said, referring to the current European Commission president, whose term ends on Oct. 31.
She added Brussels would strive to agree what amounted to a limited deal before the commission's term ends on Oct. 31. "If we agree to start, I think it can go quite quickly."
Malmstrom stressed that the potential tariffs deal was far less ambitious than the previous "TTIP" negotiations, which stalled after three years and have now been rendered obsolete.
The two sides are each other's largest trading partners. Flows between the two represent 30 per cent of global trade.
A commission survey estimates an agreement on industrial tariffs would increase EU exports to the United States by eight per cent and U.S. products bound for Europe by nine per cent.
Cars OK, but agriculture a 'red line'
The EU and the U.S. reached a détente last July when U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to hold off imposing punitive tariffs on EU cars as the two sides sought to improve economic ties.That included removing tariffs on "non-auto industrial goods."
The commission has said it is willing to discuss cars, but will not include farm products, a key demand of the U.S., which wants comprehensive agricultural market access.
"Agriculture will certainly not be part of these negotiations. This is a red line for Europe," Malmstrom said.
The Trump administration has a wide-ranging wish list, including comprehensive agricultural market access.
Diplomats say Germany, whose exports of cars and parts to the United States are more than half the EU total, wants to press ahead with talks to ward off tariffs on carmakers Volkswagen, Mercedes maker Daimler and BMW.
France, with very few U.S. car exports, had been seeking to push the issue beyond the European Parliament elections in May, convinced that dealing with Trump is not a vote winner.
France has insisted that agriculture should not feature in the talks but that climate change provisions should — a difficult demand given Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.