EU, US free trade talks pick up pace: Officials

BRUSSELS (AFP) - EU and US officials said Friday they had picked up the pace in talks on the world's biggest free trade accord, although they did not discuss the main sticking point - investment protection.

Negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) began optimistically in 2013 but have gotten bogged down on growing reservations in the EU, especially over US demands that private companies be allowed to take governments to court to seek redress.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament said the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system - a feature in other US trade deals - undercut democratic oversight and should be replaced by a public court procedure.

EU chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero and his US counterpart Dan Mullaney told reporters after the 10th round of TTIP negotiations in Brussels that both sides were committed to pushing ahead with the talks.

"We have worked this week with strong political wind in our wings," Garcia Bercero said, citing recent solid support for the accord in the US Congress, from US President Barack Obama and from the G-7 group of top industrial countries.

"We had no discussion on investment protection or ISDS," he said, when asked if the subject had come up.

Mullaney, who cited the recent European Parliament decision as an endorsement for moving ahead, said "both sides now have clear guidance to get TTIP done and to bring home an agreement."

Garcia Bercero said the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU which conducts the negotiations on behalf of the 28-nation EU, understood the concerns voiced over ISDS.

"We will be able to put through a proposal in many ways different from the existing ISDS regime. We will now be working to finalise a proposal once we have gone through discussions with member states and the Parliament," he said.

EU Trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem earlier this year proposed creating an international investment court to hear disputes.

Mullaney said the United States also understood the issues raised, which had come up previously in its own consultations on ISDS.

"The US side is very much looking forward to the time, in the very near future, to get" the EU proposal, he said.

Both Garcia Bercero and Mullaney stressed that the week's talks had gone well, with each side filling out their positions on key sectors such as services - which account for about two-thirds of activity in a developed economy - and public procurement and regulatory compatibility.

"We have an opportunity to conclude TTIP in the Obama term (which ends January 2017) but there is still a lot of work to do," Mullaney said.

TTIP is touted as the world's biggest trade deal, creating a colossal market of 850 million consumers and accounting for more than half of global economic output.

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