Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel over the weekend became the latest European politician to voice doubts over the possibility of the EU agreeing a major new trade deal with the United States, saying in a newspaper interview that negotiations might have to be abandoned for now.
“This treaty could represent growth and jobs for Europe on condition that it is balanced,” Michel said in an interview published in Belgian business daily L’Echo on 3 September.
“What is on the table doesn’t seem to be. So, for the moment, I prefer to say that it’s not right and that perhaps we will resume negotiations later. That said, there is an electoral reality in America. They are campaigning.”
Washington and Brussels are officially committed to sealing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) before US President Barack Obama leaves office in January, but serious doubts have surfaced.
Last week French Trade Minister Matthias Fekl said he would request a halt to the talks at an EU trade ministers’ meeting on Sept. 23 after German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel had declared that talks were “de facto dead”.
Observers have said Fekl and Gabriel are responding to public mistrust of the TTIP proposals which critics say would lower environmental and food standards and allow foreign multinationals to challenge government policies. Both France and Germany are due to hold elections in 2017.
EU trade chief Cecilia Malmström, who is in charge of trade negotiations for the European Union, said last week she was surprised to hear the comments before she had been able to brief trade ministers at the meeting in Bratislava.
“They are advancing. They are difficult. We knew that from the beginning, but they have not failed,” she told reporters, adding the aim was still to conclude talks before President Barack Obama’s term ends in January.
“That is still our aim and if that is not possible it makes sense to make as much as progress as possible,” she said. “It’s very difficult to say this is a bad deal because there isn’t any deal yet. Nothing is concluded until everything is concluded.”
In the meantime the shock of the closure of an American plant in Belgium reverberated in the country. Heavy machinery maker Caterpillar Inc said it could lay off about 2,000 employees at a plant in Wallonia, as it considers shifting production to other facilities as part of a restructuring program announced last year.
The company, which manufactures construction equipment at the plant in Gosselies, Belgium said it may shift the production to its facility at Grenoble, France and other locations outside of Europe.
Caterpillar said in September 2015 that it will cut as many as 10,000 jobs through 2018 and also might close or consolidate more than 20 plants around the world as it grappled with the mining and energy downturn.
In July, Caterpillar said that global uncertainty, the vote in Britain to leave the European Union and the attempted coup in Turkey had heightened risks, especially in Europe.