EU officials press for trade pact

European Union officials on Wednesday said a trade agreement between the U.S. and EU must be comprehensive and ambitious to secure support on both sides of the Atlantic.

The EU’s top trade official in Washington and the European Parliament’s liaison to Congress urged key U.S. business leaders to keep the pressure on Congress and the White House to put all sectors of the economy on the table as trade talks ramp up.


• HillTube video: EU officials press for ambitious trade deal



President Obama’s trade office is working with Congress to set the parameters for the talks before formal negotiations begin in a couple of months. 

The EU officials said they hope the talks can wrap up within two to three years.

“One of the key challenges going forward is to try and keep the level of ambition on both sides as high as possible so we make sure we benefit in a mutual way,” Hiddo Houben, head of the trade section of the European Union delegation in Washington, said at a luncheon hosted by The Hill and sponsored by international lobbying firm Goddard Global. 

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“It’s very important to conceive this as ... something that will re-invigorate the trans-Atlantic relationship, give it new meaning,” he said.

Houben argued the deal would have political significance beyond trade if the pact met the goal of ambition — which could be a difficult goal to meet, given sensitivities on both sides. 

The EU’s agriculture sector remains protected, and many member states protect their domestic film industries from Hollywood. Sensitivities on the U.S. side include financial services, air transportation and shipping.

Houben said the Eurozone crisis has created the political will for bold action on trade to counter Europe’s slippage in the global economy. His colleague Antoine Ripoll, head of the European Parliament’s Liaison Office with the U.S. Congress, portrayed it as the last best chance to protect western standards on labor rights and democracy amid the rise of China.

“This agreement is very much about how our societies — the European and American ones — can be competitive and how can we sustain our values,” Ripoll said. If the two partners fail to reach a deal, “I think we really have serious concerns to have on the future of our values.”

Obama announced in his February State of the Union address that his administration was launching talks on a “comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union” after vowing in 2010 to double U.S. exports over five years. Houben said he was “delighted” by Obama’s appointment last week of Michael Froman to be the next U.S. Trade Representative as a sure sign of the president’s commitment.

He said European countries should be ready to open up sensitive sectors such as agriculture, which he called “part and parcel” of any deal, while the U.S. needs to consider more competition in air transport, shipping and government procurement. 

He also called for action on two new pillars that haven’t been part of past trade deals: closer coordination on regulations and action on new economic sectors such as the Internet economy and access to raw materials.

The deal has already generated some blowback on both sides of the Atlantic.

Members of the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee voted 14 to 11 last month to recommend that the EU exclude “cultural and audiovisual services” from the scope of negotiations, a concession to countries such as France that subsidize their cultural sectors.

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) expressed concern this week that the massive trade undertaking could lead financial firms to seek a weakening of financial regulations.

But a top U.S. Chamber of Commerce official, Marjorie Chorlins, said forging the deal isn’t about reducing or eliminating regulations, saying it will serve as an avenue to better align the trading partners that doesn’t sacrifice market safety.