WASHINGTON, April 2, 2014 - The U.S. and EU are “clearly into negotiating mode,” after completing the fourth round of their Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks, Marc Vanheukelen, the European Trade Commission’s head of cabinet, told EU’s agriculture community at the annual Forum for Agriculture in Brussels Tuesday.

The statement – met with stifled laughter from a skeptical audience that wondered aloud what negotiators had been doing in previous rounds -- illustrates the complexity of the negotiations, which Vanheukelen said could result in an additional $120 billion per year into the EU. 

“It takes a few rounds to talk about how we’re going to talk,” explained Darci Vetter, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services and President Obama’s nominee for as chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the United States Trade Representative. “We’re working to understand the (trade) system, its opportunities and its limits,” said Vetter, who was attending the Brussels forum.

Though negotiations are due to wrap up before the end of 2014, many in the U.S. agricultural sector are privately murmuring their skepticism given the progress thus far.

Vetter conceded that negotiators had yet to touch biotechnology issues, a banner topic for the U.S. agriculture sector, which hopes to open the EU market to more genetically modified products.

But a European Commission representative said Tuesday that the EU would not budge on its current biotechnology regime, which has heavily restricted the use of genetically modified organisms within its member states.

“On this point, Europe will not be able to move,” said Paola Testiori Coggi, the head of the European Commission’s health and consumer protection agency.

“Is TTIP going to lead to dumping [its biotechnology policy]?” Pascal Lamy, former head World Trade Organization, told reporters. “That’s not what I believe, to the contrary.”

Other thorny TTIP issues – most of which negotiators have declined to discuss with the press – include sanitary and phytosanitary standards (the EU has banned imports of U.S-produced chlorinated chicken), renewable energy and the harmonization of U.S. and EU food safety systems. Negotiators have agreed to hold another round of talks in Washington before the summer.

Meanwhile, political gamesmen are preparing to pitch a finished deal to a skeptical public. Citizens of the U.S. and EU have yet to show serious interest in the negotiations, mostly because the talks have taken place out of sight and mind, said James Elles, chairman of the Transatlantic Trade Policy Network and a member of the European Parliament.

TTIP won’t conclude before the American lawmakers get through the midterm elections and grant President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), Elles said. TPA gives a president power to negotiate trade agreements with an up or down approval vote – filibuster- and amendment-free – from Congress.

“We’re just waiting to have this conversation,” Elles said. “We’re excited. It’s going to be dynamic.”  Given the support from top European and U.S. politicians – Obama signaled his support for a final trade deal as recently as last week – TTIP will probably succeed, Elles said.

“The political community is going to say that [TTIP] is too big to fail,” Elles said. He predicted it would pass in the U.S. Congress and European Parliament and Council.

A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report found that if many tariffs and trade barriers between the EU and U.S. are eliminated by a free trade agreement, it would benefit Europe by as much as $3 billion and the U.S. by $4.5 billion.

“Although these estimated increases to overall GDP levels may be relatively small, tariff elimination could have a significant impact for specific firms and economic sectors,” CRS wrote.

According to USDA data, U.S. exports of food and farm products to the EU in fiscal 2013 totaled $11.5 billion.


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