* Mistrust of trade talks must be countered - ministers
* U.S. spying, populism, environmental fears erode support
By Robin Emmott
ATHENS, Feb 28 Free-trade talks between the
United States and the European Union are in danger of being
derailed by populist groups opposing everything from
globalisation to multinationals, EU ministers and business
leaders said on Friday.
The rise of anti-EU parties, reports of U.S. spying in
Europe and accusations that a trade pact would pander to big
companies have combined to erode public support for a deal that
proponents say would dramatically increase economic growth.
"We are grappling with people who are anti-European, who are
anti-American, who are anti-free trade, who are
anti-globalisation and who are anti-multinational corporations,"
Finland's minister for Europe and trade, Alexander Stubb, told
his EU counterparts and business leaders at a meeting in Athens.
"We have an uphill battle to make the argument that this
EU-U.S. free-trade agreement is a good one," he said in remarks
that were broadcast to reporters.
With the euro zone's economy barely out of a two-year
recession, EU governments see a trade deal with the United
States as the best way to create jobs. They say a pact
encompassing almost half the world's economy could generate $100
billion in additional economic output a year on both sides of
The European Union and the United States already trade
almost $3 billion in goods and services each day, and by
deepening economic ties, the pact could create a market of 800
million people where business could be done freely.
The EU's trade chief Karel De Gucht conceded that, outside
business circles, there was little public awareness about the
proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which
is often known by its initials as "T-TIP".
"When we talk about T-TIP, some people think it is an
extraterrestrial," De Gucht said.
Nils Andersen of Danish shipper A.P. Moller-Maersk
, who was among chief executives invited to the
debate, said there was a danger of voters being "hijacked by
YES OR NO?
Public support is crucial because the European Parliament
and the U.S. Congress must ratify the agreement once it is made.
EU lawmakers have already shown a willingness to reject
deals they think do not have enough public support - for example
the global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) thrown out
U.S.-EU trade talks initially enjoyed a warm reception when
they were launched in July last year.
But European consumer and green groups said a deal letting
firms operate freely in both the EU and the United states might
let companies bypass EU safety and environmental standards.
The talks have also been overshadowed by widespread distrust
of Washington caused by reports the United States bugged EU
offices and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone.
In the United States, President Barack Obama's efforts to
speed up agreement on the deal, by renewing a 'fast-track' trade
promotion authority, have faced resistance from members of his
own Democratic party, some of them sceptical about the benefits
of unfettered free trade.
The 'fast track' authority, which expired in 2007, would
allow Obama to present the trade to Congress for a simple
'yes/no' vote, avoiding the risk of lawmakers picking it apart
clause by clause and delaying its chances of becoming law
De Gucht said the EU's tight regulation in the sensitive
issue of genetically modified food would not change, even if
Brussels and Washington did sign an accord.
Some Europeans are worried about what impact GM crops and
products - often dubbed "Frankenstein Food" - might have on
health and the environment.
"We are not dumbing down our standards," De Gucht said. "I
will not agree to put hormone beef on the European market or
change our laws on genetically modified organisms."