No trade deal without agriculture, warns US ambassador to the EU

European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom (R) and US trade representative Robert Lighthizer (L) arrive for a meeting at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 10 March 2018. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The US will not sign up to a trade deal with the EU unless agriculture is included, US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland warned during a conference at the European Business Summit in Brussels on Tuesday (7 May), ahead of another round of transatlantic talks.

EU member states backed the negotiating mandate to start talks with the US to work towards the elimination of tariffs for industrial goods earlier in April, in spite of France’s opposition.

The mandate does not allow the European Commission to put agriculture on the table but only industrial goods. However, Donald Trump’s administration keeps pushing for farming to be included in the deal.

“Before a final agreement is ratified by Congress, there has to be something on agriculture. I don’t know how broad this agreement needs to be; maybe it is symbolic, maybe it is substantial, maybe it is something in between, but agriculture is absolutely, one way or another, going to be in that agreement,” Sondland told the audience.

The basis for the EU-US trade talks is the joint statement Trump and Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker signed in July 2018. There was no mention of agriculture there.

“They will get to agriculture eventually,” Sondland insisted. “Even though you can romanticise the small French family farmer, we have a lot of small romantic farmers in Iowa,” the US ambassador to the EU said.

“I don’t think that agriculture is necessarily enough to fix the whole trade deficit but there needs to be, in good faith, an inclusion of agriculture,” Sondland insisted.

France opposed opening trade talks with the US amid fears that they could revive the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) through the backdoor. Agriculture was one of the key sticking points in the failed TTIP talks, including the protection of geographical indications of origin.

French President Emmanuel Macron also opposed reopening EU-US talks because of Trump’s decision to walk away from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Ambassadors pave the way for EU-US trade talks, despite French opposition

Europe is set to start trade talks with the US after ambassadors gave their green light on Thursday (11 April) to a proposed mandate for the European Commission to conduct the negotiations on behalf of the 28 EU member countries.

EU ‘dragging its feet’

Juncker’s visit to Washington in July was meant to ease tensions between the two sides, following Trump’s decision to impose restrictive measures on steel and aluminium imports and threats of further tariffs on European cars.

Now that EU member states have approved the mandate, the EU and the US can start the actual negotiations.

At the end of the month, US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and trade Commissioner Cecilia Mälmstrom are expected to take stock of progress made in the negotiation.

Asked whether the EU was “dragging its feet” on getting to the substance, US ambassador  Sondland answered categorically: “Yes.”

“The EU in its own selfish interest, they have no interest in negotiating this trade agreement,” Sondland argued, referring to existing non-tariff barriers and the EU’s trade surplus with respect to the US that the Trump administration has been complaining about for the past year. 

“Everyday that goes by and the EU is not negotiating a trade deal with the US in its own interest, it’s a good day for Europe,” Sondland claimed. On the other hand, it would be a bad day for the US, “because these kinds of imbalances cannot be sustainable in the long term,” he said.

“The president has no choice. He has to confront this issue,” the US ambassador argued.

Sondland showed confidence in the future though. Confronted with a potential failure of the negotiations, the US ambassador said that “the EU will soon recognise” that in the long term, “these imbalances are not good for them either.”

On a side note, when asked about whether the US was sounding out British prime minister Theresa May for her plans after Brexit, Sondland said that “it is in the US interest that when Brexit does occur, we are free to negotiate trade agreements with both the UK and the EU .”

EU will eliminate industrial tariffs only if US lifts metal duties

The European Commission has made clear to the US administration that the elimination of industrial tariffs will depend on Washington lifting duties it imposed on EU steel and aluminium last summer.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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