German and French ministers are pressing fellow EU member states to seek a fresh mandate for trade talks with Washington after the US presidential election in a further sign that the stalled negotiation is on the brink of a long suspension.
In spite of the pushback from Berlin and Paris, EU trade ministers resolved at a meeting in Slovakia to continue talks with Washington next month on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
But the ministers recognised publicly that a deal will not be reached before President Barack Obama leaves office next January, raising the prospect of lengthy delays as the new US administration beds down and the EU enters Brexit talks with the UK.
Any move to rework the TTIP negotiation mandate would further complicate the situation at a time when many EU states believe their immediate priority should be to preserve progress made in three years of talks.
A fresh mandate would mean scrapping the progress made to date in the negotiations. It would also be difficult to agree since it would require unanimous support from the bloc’s member states — many of whose leaders are under pressure from antitrade campaigners.
With hopes fading for a rapid deal, the European ministers backed a parallel plan to salvage a smaller trade pact with Canada. They were hoping to dampen objections in Austria and Belgium, which threaten to scupper the so-called CETA agreement.
The effort to finalise the Canadian deal is regarded by many as a test of the EU’s credibility as a global trade negotiator. Cecelia Malmstrom, EU trade commissioner, said: “If we can’t do it with Canada then with whom can we make agreements?”
It appeared increasingly unlikely that a TTIP deal would be reached before the next US president is sworn in, she acknowledged, saying: “If we were not to conclude TTIP before [January 19 2017] then there would be a natural pause.”
Matthias Machnig, German secretary of state for economic affairs, told ministers it would be “totally unproductive” to plough on with the talks. Calling for a fresh start, he said the next US president would need a new negotiation mandate and the EU “will also need a new mandate”.
Matthias Fekl, the French trade minister, called for suspension and serious reservations were expressed by the Austrian and Dutch ministers. “TTIP is dead and it can’t be resuscitated … so I ask for a stop to the negotiations so that we can restart on a new basis,” Mr Fekl said.
Yet a large majority of member states wanted the talks to continue, at least for now. EU leaders are set to take stock of the talks at their next summit, towards the end of October.
The summit is seen a crucial moment for the negotiation as Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has not pulled back from her public commitment to the talks. Similarly, François Hollande, the French president, has not gone as far as Mr Fekl.
Ms Merkel’s public stance is at odds with vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, her Social Democrat coalition partner, who believes the talks have failed. Mr Machnig represented Mr Gabriel in the discussion on TTIP at Bratislava.