BRUSSELS The European Commission's call for views on a contentious part of a planned EU-U.S. free trade deal has drawn almost 150,000 responses that will take months to process, a senior EU official said on Friday.
Many advocacy groups oppose aspects of the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that they say would prevent national governments from intervening to protect consumers and the environment.
The Commission, the EU's executive body which is negotiating the deal with the United States on behalf of the 28 EU countries, launched a public consultation, concluding on Sunday, on the pact's investment protection provisions.
Public consultations typically draw tens of responses. A consultation two years ago on EU-U.S. trade and economic relations drew 114.
The EU's chief negotiator, Ignacio Garcia Bercero, told a news conference at the end of a sixth round of negotiations over the pact that the Commission had received nearly 150,000 responses and would not be able to produce a report on its findings until November.
Discussions on investment protection have been suspended since January, although negotiations continue on other aspects of TTIP.
The public consultation, along with a bid launched this week by a coalition of advocacy groups to stop TTIP risk delaying negotiations even before they turn to thornier topics such as food safety and energy.
Some members of the European Parliament share concerns about the pact's investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS), a provision allowing foreign companies to bring claims against a country if it breaches a trade treaty.
Opponents cite as a warning the Asian arm of tobacco group Philip Morris's legal challenge of Australia for introducing plain cigarette packaging, arguing it was a breach of Australia's trade deal with Hong Kong.
Critics say companies can easily seek redress in European or U.S. courts under existing legislation.
Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht has responded by saying that ISDS is nothing new and that EU members already have some 1,400 bilateral trade deals in place, the vast majority of them with similar provisions.
He has also said that he would seek to improve the system to stop potential legal loopholes being used for "frivolous" claims against a state or potential abuse.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Anna Weaver; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)