BRUSSELS — Acknowledging strong public skepticism in Europe over free trade talks with the U.S., the European Union's incoming trade chief on Monday called for a "fresh start" and more transparency in the negotiations.
Sweden's Cecilia Malmstrom said she was "struck by the intense concern" the negotiations have sparked among citizens and officials, requiring greater transparency as the talks inch toward what would be the world's single largest free trade deal.
"We must demonstrate that we are not negotiating a secret deal behind the public's back," she told lawmakers during a confirmation hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels.
The deal would boost trade, which currently totals 2 billion euros ($2.6 billion) a day, by creating a trading bloc of 800 million people that accounts for around half the world's economic output. Officials say an agreement would significantly increase employment and economic output on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, initial hopes to reach a preliminary deal by the end of 2014 have faltered amid growing public opposition, particularly in Europe. Opponents worry that health and food safety standards could be lowered and that controversial investment rules will hand multinational companies a tool to boss around governments. Suspicions toward the U.S. following a spying scandal and electoral considerations on both sides of the Atlantic have also not helped to foster progress.
Malmstrom, who is the Commissioner for Home Affairs in the 28-nation bloc's outgoing executive Commission, vowed to regularly publish details about her meetings and correspondence and to give EU lawmakers access to the classified documents underpinning the negotiations.
Malmstrom said she will present her assessment of where the negotiations stand on the trade deal, officially called TTIP, by the end of the year.
"We need to get this deal right, so substance must prevail over timing," she insisted. "I have no illusion that TTIP wouldn't be very difficult."
The new EU Commission, set to take over in November, needs the EU Parliament's approval. Lawmakers, however, cannot veto specific commissioners.
Analysts say an EU-U.S. free trade deal is unlikely within President Barack Obama's second term, which ends in early 2017. His successor will most likely face similar obstacles in Congress where lawmakers, fearing job losses in some sectors, have proved reluctant to embrace another free trade agreement since the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks on the agreement is a set of proposed rules that would allow investors or firms to bring arbitration claims against a country for violations of the pact's investment guidelines.
Activists, lawmakers, unions and some officials in the EU fear the rules will curtail the right of governments to set policies by exposing them to corporate lawsuits.
"We must continue to set unambiguous rules to avoid the abuses of (the investment rules) that many worry about, to bring full transparency into the system, and — most importantly — to ensure that (they) cannot be used to inhibit the right to regulate in the public interest," Malmstrom said.
Bowing to public pressure, the EU Commission this year suspended negotiations on the investment rules and launched a public consultation that bureaucrats in Brussels are currently examining.
"It is a very toxic issue," Malmstrom said. However, she voiced confidence that it will be possible to design investment rules that will take into account the concerns but still allow for a strong agreement. The U.S. won't accept a deal without the investment rules.
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