US says EU backing away from promise to nix tariffs

U.S. trade officials are growing more concerned that their European Union (EU) counterparts are backing away from a vow to eliminate remaining tariffs as part of a massive trade agreement.

Eliminating tariffs between the world's largest trading partners was a central goal in a report released more than a year ago that launched the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations.

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"The United States remains committed to the goal, written into the High Level Working Group Report and endorsed by both our leaders, of eliminating all duties on bilateral trade,” said Trevor Kincaid, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office in a Wednesday email.

"Recent actions by the EU seem to back away from this goal and we need to know if it stands by its commitment or not.”

The two trading powerhouses are at odds over tariffs specifically on U.S. agricultural imports to the EU.

"So far, the concern is more that they are backing away, especially on agriculture," a source close to the talks told The Hill.

Meanwhile, the EU has made an ambitious initial offer to nix tariffs on the industrial goods side, the source said.

“We’re hoping to hear soon that they remain committed to expedite the process, as we do.”

The disagreement underscores the challenges that must be tackled to forge the $5 trillion trading zone between the U.S. and the 28-nation EU as they continue their fourth round of talks on the TTIP this week in Brussels.

Last month, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht told reporters that the first tariff removal offer by U.S. officials wasn't aggressive enough.

But the U.S. source said it is rare for early round offers to reflect where a final agreement might land, saying that there was “a lot of dust thrown up in the air about the first round tariff offers."

“First round offers don’t mean very much.”

While much of the focus has been on harmonizing the regulatory environments, tariffs are cropping up as an almost surprising issue.

"It should be a much easier part of the negotiation because you can see it and define it numerically," the source said.

The stall comes about two months ahead of EU parliament elections, which are scheduled for May 22-25, fueling the theory that politics are weighing heavy the direction of the talks in these early rounds.

Generally, though, discussions are moving along well at the technical level, though, the source said.

Tariffs, on average, run below 3 percent, but there are some goods that have much higher duties between the trading partners.

The EU and the United States account for nearly half of world's economic growth and 30 percent of world trade.

The U.S. collected about $4.5 billion in tariffs from EU products in 2012.

U.S. and EU officials have said they want to expedite the completion of the trade deal, probably within the next year or so.