EU hopes for 'skeleton' of US trade deal by year-end

BRUSSELS (AFP) - The EU said Wednesday it hopes the "skeleton" of a massive but controversial free trade deal with the United States will be ready by the end of this year, lowering sights set at a summit last month.

Talks on the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact), which would be the world's biggest trade deal, began 19 months ago and are still under way, with the next round due in February.

"We hope that we can work as efficiently as possible with the Americans, hopefully in the best of scenarios to have the skeleton ready by the end of the year," EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem told reporters.

EU leaders agreed at a Dec 19 summit in the Belgian capital that Brussels and Washington "should make all efforts to conclude negotiations" on TTIP by the end of 2015.

Ms Malmstroem said both Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress told her during her visit to Washington last month that they would work together for a deal, despite being divided on so many other issues.

"The Americans gave a signal that they are willing to at least try to achieve this under the Obama mandate," she added.

President Barack Obama, who is serving his second and last term in the White House, is due to leave office in January 2017 following presidential elections in November 2016.

The European Commission, the EU executive arm, meanwhile released more documents about the trade pact that has drawn sharp criticism from labour unions and activists.

Criticism has particularly focused on a clause - the so-called investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS - which would allow firms to sue national governments if they feel that local regulations violate the trade deal and threaten their investments.

The newly released texts were on competition, food safety and animal and plant health, customs issues, technical barriers to trade, small and medium-sized enterprises and government-to-government dispute settlement, which the commission said is "not to be confused" with ISDS.

"We are delivering on the promise we made in November... to take a concrete initiative to increase transparency and openness around TTIP," Ms Malmstroem said.

But she said "sensitive" issues like those concerning market access, quotas and tariffs would not be published.

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