As the European Union and the United States wrap up a week of talks on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) in Washington, the EU still says it hopes to have something to show before the European elections in May. But observers say the real, final deadline is mid 2016, just before the US elections.

Partners on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed hope to finish negotiations on the trade deal swiftly, perhaps even before the end of this year.

But experts argue this target is over-optimistic. “There is no evidence that they can get this done before [that date],” Bruce Stokes, director of the global economic program at the Washington-based Pew Research Center, told EurActiv.

The real deadline negotiators should focus on, Stokes said, “is whether they can get it done before the presidential elections in the US, in 2016.”

European and American representatives engaged in a stocktaking exercise in Washington this week on the negotiation process. A fourth round of talks in due in March, at an EU-US summit in Brussels.

But negotiations are likely to be suspended between April and the autumn due to the European Parliament elections.

Christian Leffler, managing director for the Americas at the EU’s external action service, said there was an urge to come with early "easy deliverables", but that there was none. So we'll slide into the usual tit for tat negotiation and the prospects for making any real progress, are bleak. We should keep cool but continue the real work.”

Stokes and Leffler spoke at a conference of the European Strategic and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS), in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday (17-18 February).

Legacy of Obama administration

A transatlantic FTA would make part of the Obama administration’s legacy, but “he won’t get credit in the history books for having started this,” Stokes argued. The interest of the American president and his trade negotiators would drop considerably if the target date is pushed beyond early 2016.

The US congress has final approval over the trade agreement, putting pressure on the American administration to come up with significant results if it wants TTIP to pass. “There has to be significant value to make it politically sailable,” Stokes said.

Peter van Ham, senior research fellow at the Clingendael institute of international relations concurred, in an earlier interview with, saying “the whole thing lasting 18 months or so is without precedent and technically almost impossible to negotiate. I never really believed the optimism about the time frame envisioned.”

>> Read the full interview: Dutch academic: TTIP needed to save 'crumbling' transatlantic relationship

The public debate on TTIP in Europe has turned sour over the past months. Civil society organisations have criticised the negotiations for lacking transparency and MEPs fear the agreement endangers environmental standards and consumer protection.

Last month, the EU Commission launched a TTIP advisory group to ease such criticism. As Europe struggles with a consensus, Stokes argues the same is happening in the US.

“One of the conundrums in an era of globalisation, is that such issues touch more and more on citizens’ lives, so people are more worried,” according to Stokes. “The public wants to know what goes on behind closed doors, but you cannot conduct a negotiation like that. The public’s need for transparency flies in the face of the art of negotiation.”

According to Leffler, there is no turning back for negotiators: the talks are “doomed to succeed” as “a number of senior political negotiators, including the US president, have vouched [for a successful TTIP].”

TTIP talks started in July 2013. A second round of negotiations was held in November and a third round in December 2013. The stakes are huge for both partners, as EU-US trade accounts for up to €2 billion euro a day – the biggest trade relationship in the world.