BRUSSELS (AFP) - EU member countries on Friday (Oct 19) gave Brussels the green light to start talks with Washington aimed at ending a long-running row over US beef imports and at easing broader trade tensions.
The European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, can now proceed with its proposal to give Washington a larger share of an existing import quota for hormone-free beef.
The member states "authorised the Commission to open negotiations on an agreement with the United States on imports of high quality beef from animals not treated with certain growth promoting hormones," they said in a statement.
It stressed the negotiations will not lead to lifting the EU ban on hormone-treated American beef - a restriction which Washington says breaches World Trade Organization rules.
"The ban remains," it added.
The member states have allowed the commission to allocate the United States a larger part of the existing hormone-free beef quota that is also available to exporters from other countries.
"The Commission is not authorised to negotiate an increase in the existing TRQ (tariff rate quota) but can discuss a country-specific allocation of the overall quota," the statement added.
It said "negotiations with other supplying countries may be needed" to seal a deal with Washington that respects international trade agreements.
The row over hormone-treated beef dates back to 1988, when Europe banned imports of meat from animals injected with growth hormones, a common US practice.
In retaliation, and in line with a WTO ruling, in 1999 Washington imposed higher customs duties on some European products, provoking angry protests in France.
Under a compromise reached in 2009 and amended in 2014, the United States lifted the sanctions and the EU created an import quota for "high-quality" hormone-free foreign beef, including that from the United States.
But other producers such as Argentina, Australia and Uruguay seized a large share of the quota, prompting President Barack Obama's administration to threaten a renewal of the customs penalties.
Obama's successor Donald Trump has raised the spectre of a trade war with the EU since imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium this year.
In July, Trump and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker pledged to hold off from further tit-for-tat tariffs and to work towards scrapping customs duties on all goods.
But the trade truce came under pressure on Wednesday when top US officials slammed Brussels for stalling trade talks.
The member states said the talks on beef are not related to the broader dialogue but said "a mutually beneficial solution to our longstanding dispute over beef would be a major step forward in improving our trade cooperation."