Europe removes agriculture barriers to US trade talks

BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - The European Union dropped its ban on some US meat imports on Monday in a gesture aimed at starting talks on a free-trade pact that would encompass about half the world's economic output.

Brussels and Washington want to deepen a relationship that accounts for a third of global trade, and ending the EU import ban on live pigs and beef washed in lactic acid is meant to show the Europeans are serious about a deal.

The ban will be lifted from Feb 25, dropping European objections that were based on differing hygiene and husbandry methods in meat production. US farmers have long regarded these concerns as unscientific.

The EU may also consider easing restrictions on imports of US animal fat, known as tallow, used in biofuels.

"The United States had certain preconditions for talks to start. We want to show them that Europe can deliver," said a senior EU diplomat involved in preparing for negotiations.

EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht will travel to Washington on Tuesday to put the finishing touches to a joint EU-US report that is expected to recommend going ahead with free trade negotiations.

Mr De Gucht told Reuters last month these will be "difficult negotiations". However, Europe and the United States both seek an economic boost after meagre growth since the global crisis of 2008-2009.

Import tariffs between the European Union and the US are already low, and the real benefit would come from increased access to each other's markets, as well as common regulations that would remove the high costs that smaller companies face if they want to export beyond their borders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told US Vice-President Joe Biden last week in Berlin that she saw "positive signs" in the push for talks.

A deal could increase Europe's economic output by 65 billion euros (S$109 billion) a year, a 0.5 per cent rise in the EU's gross domestic product, the European Commission calculates.

However, Washington is worried about getting caught up in endless negotiations with the 27-nation bloc.

No date has yet been set for the release of the joint EU-US report on the viability of trade talks, initially expected by the end of last year, generating some concern among European and US companies who support the deal.

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