WASHINGTON Europe's top trade official plans an ambitious push to seal a sweeping U.S.-European free trade deal this year even as bitter U.S. presidential primary races sour voter sentiment towards trade.
With many candidates, including Republican front-runner Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders, voicing strong opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, its European counterpart, still under negotiation, has largely flown under the radar.
European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told reporters on a visit to Washington on Wednesday that major negotiating rounds for the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) were scheduled for April and July, with more informal meetings in March, June and May.
She will meet U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman this week to discuss progress.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton's surprise defeat by Sanders in manufacturing-heavy Michigan has laid bare growing voter anger over trade and job losses..
Despite such opposition, Malmstrom said she was determined to sew up most of the TTIP chapters by summer, including settling major differences over U.S. "Buy American" government procurement standards, how to resolve investment disputes and over Europe's many geographical rules that govern food products from Parma ham to feta cheese.
"We are determined to try to push this, if possible, to finalize it, being aware that there will be a new administration that will have a word on it," Malmstrom said. "If we are to finish this before the end of the year, of course we need to enter the end-game by the summer."
But with some U.S. congressional leaders saying that the TPP deal is unlikely to get a vote before the November presidential election, the TTIP is virtually certain to be left to President Barack Obama's successor.
Malmstrom said that EU and U.S. negotiators last week traded proposals on the difficult issue of investment dispute resolution. The EU has objected to the U.S. model for investor-state dispute settlement with binding arbitration and recently bolstered its argument by signing a free trade deal with Canada that includes Europe's model for a more court-like system that allows for appeals.
No negotiations have taken place yet over the dispute resolution proposals, but Malmstrom said, "I don't expect this to pass smoothly."
Malmstrom said she was determined not to let U.S. campaign rhetoric against free trade jobs stall the TTIP negotiations.
"Without entering into debate with one individual, I don't share those arguments," she said. "In good trade agreements, there are a lot of economic advantages."
(Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Nick Macfie)