EU countries approve launch of US trade talks

European flags flutter in the wind in front of EU institutions in Brussels.
European flags flutter in the wind in front of EU institutions in Brussels.PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - EU member states gave the green light on Thursday (April 11) for Brussels to open trade talks with Washington, diplomatic sources said, ending months of stalemate due to opposition from France.

The negotiating mandate was now set to be adopted without discussion by EU agriculture ministers on Monday in Brussels, a European diplomat told AFP.

Envoys from the EU's 28 member states had struggled to agree on a mandate to open trans-Atlantic talks, with some fearing the revival of a trade war with President Donald Trump.

Pursuing a limited trade deal is a central component of an EU-US truce negotiated in July that has come close to imploding after the US on Tuesday threatened US$11 billion (S$15 billion) in fresh trade tariffs against Europe.

Paris had blocked the mandate, which mainly aims to eliminate tariffs, worried of domestic blowback just months ahead of European elections, set for May 22 to 26.

To satisfy its demands, France's EU partners agreed to insist on guarantees on the environment during the talks with the US, which pulled out in 2017 of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

"Good luck to explain to your people that you are willing to sign an agreement with a country that strongly refuses to take any commitment related to the environment," a senior diplomat said.

France however stepped back from President Emmanuel Macron's earlier promise to refuse any deal with countries that refute the Paris accord, infuriating activists.

"This decision is a slap in the face for the hundreds of thousands of young people and adults who are now protesting weekly for climate action across Europe," said Mute Schimpf of Friends of the Earth Europe.

French negotiators also obtained a guarantee from its EU partners that TTIP, a far more ambitious transatlantic trade plan, was "obsolete and no longer relevant", a European source told AFP.

That deal, negotiated to no success with the Obama administration, stalled amid widespread protests in Germany, France and Austria over fears it would undermine EU standards on food and health.

The mandate falls short of killing TTIP for good, with some member states eager to maintain an option to revive those talks if the political context should change in the EU and US.

'SOON STOP!'

Berlin strongly wants the limited deal in order to placate Trump and avoid US auto tariffs that would punish Germany's cherished exports, a prospect Chancellor Angela Merkel has labelled "frightening".

The mandate from the EU stipulates that the talks would end if the US pursued more levies against Europe, including on cars.

At the dramatic meeting last July at the White House, Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledged no new tariffs following those on steel and aluminium.

That peace was in danger on Monday as the US threatened to impose tariff counter-measures of up to US$11.2 billion on a host of European products in response to subsidies received by aircraft maker Airbus.

In a tweet Trump said: "The EU has taken advantage of the US on trade for many years. It will soon stop!"