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Europe and the United States eye free trade pact

published 3 December 2012 updated 3 December 2012

The European Union and the United States are set to launch talks early next year that officials say will create a trading bloc representing about half of the world’s economic output and nearly a third of global trade.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic have confirmed that an expert group co-chaired by EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is expected to issue a report in December that will recommend pursuing a comprehensive trade and economic agreement.

While both sides have reportedly agreed upon the talks, a formal announcement was put on hold until after the U.S. elections.

Some insiders say that full-fledged negotiations could begin as early as March 2013 and would go far beyond tariff reductions to include regulation, intellectual property rights, government procurement and services.

Observers note that with the decade-old WTO Doha round of trade talks sputtering, the EU and the United States are aggressively pursuing bilateral free-trade deals. A deal between Europe and South Korea came into effect last year and the EU is aiming for trade treaties with Canada, India and Japan.

Negotiations between the EU and Canada have dragged on longer than anticipated, but Brussels and Washington are optimistic they can avoid getting bogged down.

"I think we can do this quickly, on one tank of gas," Michael Froman, the White House international economic affairs adviser, told a gathering of service industry companies according to Reuters. "We also know... where the obstacles are and how to resolve them."

Early indications suggest that one way negotiators are hoping to conclude talks quickly is by sidestepping sensitive agricultural issues such as Washington’s ban on EU beef imports and the EU’s restriction on genetically modified foods.