ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) - Belgium is building the world's largest lock - as wide as a 19-lane highway - ready to welcome the latest generation of giant ships after Europe's brace of new trade deals.
EU lawmakers approved free-trade accords with Colombia, Peru and six Central American nations in December and also wrapped up trade talks with Singapore. A deal with Canada is expected to be finalized early this year and a more limited investment pact with China is a possibility.
At the construction site in Antwerp, 30 supersized dump trucks toil away from a giant pit, removing earth that could fill Britain's Wembley Stadium eight times over.
A century ago, Antwerp could handle the Titanic, the largest ship of its time. But as sea-going ships grow in size and the Panama Canal builds a new set of locks, Europe's largest port after Rotterdam does not want to be left behind.
"Infrastructure like this isn't built for the short term," said Freddy Aerts, a senior official for the Flanders region of northern Belgium which is overseeing the works. "Scale is constantly increasing."
The investment on the banks of the River Scheldt highlights the European Union's hunt for economic growth through global trade following the collapse of the 10-year Doha round of global trade talks. The EU hopes to start negotiations in 2013 towards free-trade accords with the United States and Japan.
In all, if the EU completes all its trade negotiations, the 27-nation bloc will add about 2 percent to its economic output, or 275 billion euros ($365 billion). That is equivalent to a country as big as Austria or Denmark joining the EU's economy.
As in Panama, Antwerp wants to be able to handle a new breed of container vessels, known as post-Panamax, that can carry almost three times the current number of cargo containers, or some 12,600 boxes, as well as large commodities ships.
With three times as much steel as the Eiffel Tower, 500m long (547 yards) and 68m wide, the lock will be one of the gates to the port and is costing 340 million euros. Begun last year, it will be completed and begin operating in 2016.
Shipping remains essential to international trade with 90 percent of world trade volumes carried by sea, according to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development.
In 2012 Antwerp port handled 1.6 percent fewer goods than in 2011, reflecting the EU's economic downturn, and suffered with the steep drop in global trade in 2008-09.
But the goal is to increase volumes by 20 million metric tons (22.046 million tons) in the long term and take the port's overall cargo levels to above 200 million metric tons a year, still half Rotterdam's current levels.
"They said in the 1960s that Antwerp would reach its limits when ships would get bigger," Aerts said. "Forty years later, history turned out to be different."
Reporting by Robin Emmott and Robert-Jan Bartunek, editing by William Hardy