EU looks beyond Obama to clinch free trade deal with US

European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom arrives for the Informal Meeting of EU Trade Ministers on Sept 23, 2016.
European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom arrives for the Informal Meeting of EU Trade Ministers on Sept 23, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

BRATISLAVA (AFP) - A last-gasp push to seal a landmark free trade deal between the European Union and the United States before the end of Barack Obama's presidency has failed, EU ministers agreed on Friday (Sept 23).

"It is not realistic to reach the final agreement by the end of the Obama administration," said Peter Ziga, the trade minister of Slovakia which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency.

The decision puts the fate of the accord on the US side in the hands of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, who are both running their presidential campaigns on anti-trade deal platforms.

The highly ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) would create the world's biggest market of 850 million consumers stretching from Hawaii to Lithuania.

But with talks dragging on since 2013, opposition has grown, most dangerously in key member states France and Germany amid fears that TTIP will undermine European standards on health and the environment.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem, who leads the talks with the US, said it takes five or six months for a new American administration to be fully in place and that effectively puts the negotiations on hold.

"When we can restart, (that) is a bit too early to speculate until we know what the administration would look like," she said after EU trade ministers met in the Slovak capital.

The ministers met hoping to patch up deep differences after tens of thousands of demonstrators thronged European cities in recent days demanding the EU walk away from the deal.

"From our point of view, the (TTIP) talks are effectively suspended because meaningful negotiations are no longer taking place," said Reinhold Mitterlehner, the economy minister from Austria where opposition to the deal is fierce.

"It would be wise to put on mute something that is perceived so negatively," he added, confirming a position Austria shares with France.

Critics complain that the US side has failed to offer any serious proposals, especially on sensitive issues such as protecting geographical labelling for renowned farm products such as Champagne or Roquefort cheese.

"I am convinced that we must restart on totally new grounds," said French Trade Minister Matthias Fekl, one of TTIP's loudest critics, adding that more and more member states were coming round to his view.

In Germany, TTIP has split the ruling coalition, with Chancellor Angela Merkel still its biggest backer but her socialist partners, led by Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, dead set against it.

Hopes were strong meanwhile for CETA, a similar deal with Canada that has already been negotiated but which had to overcome unexpected hurdles in Austria and Germany.

Fears of a failure of CETA have waned since Gabriel's socialists narrowly backed the deal at a party conference last week.

Last-minute opposition also flared up in Austria and Belgium but the ministers now expect to approve the agreement next month so that it can be signed with Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau at an EU-Canada summit on October 27.

CETA would then go on for ratification in national and regional parliaments across the EU, a tricky and time consuming process, though most of the terms will be able to be implemented provisionally.

Opponents believe CETA is an attempt to set a dangerous precedent before completing the much bigger accord with the US.

More than 160,000 demonstrators thronged major cities across Germany on Saturday in opposition to both trade deals. Thousands more protested outside EU headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday.