WASHINGTON The United States needs a strong political signal from European Union leaders to put proposed talks on a transatlantic trade agreement into high gear, a U.S. senior administration official said on Tuesday.
"What we're really focused on is making sure the Europeans are fully committed to the talks and have the political will to take on the difficult issues," the official said ahead of meetings on Wednesday with EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht.
The world's largest trading partners have been discussing the possibility of launching trade talks since at least November 2011, when President Barack Obama and his European counterparts created a high-level task force to examine the idea.
De Gucht is in Washington for talks with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and other U.S. officials on the task force's recommendations, which were supposed to be given to U.S. and EU leaders by the end of last year.
A interim report released in June made a preliminary recommendation for talks on a "comprehensive" trade pact.
No date has been set for releasing the final recommendations, although De Gucht said last week they were essentially complete.
Leaders from the 27 EU member states are expected to discuss the proposed trade talks and the task force's recommendations at a European Council meeting on Thursday.
"We hope they'll use that council meeting as an opportunity to send a clear message about their political will to do what is necessary to make this work," the senior U.S. said, speaking on condition that he not be identified.
The United States has long been frustrated with EU restrictions on U.S. farm products it says are not based on any scientific evidence of health risk.
It has pressed the EU to address those concerns as a sign it is serious about the trade talks. On Monday, the EU dropped its ban on U.S. live pigs and on beef washed in lactic acid to clean pathogens.
The EU may also consider easing restrictions on imports of U.S. animal fat, known as tallow, used in biofuels.
Since tariffs between the United States and the EU are already relatively low. The main benefits from the talks are expected to come from harmonizing standards and reducing regulatory barriers to trade.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in speech on Saturday in Munich, touted the potential job-creating benefits of a transatlantic trade pact, but dragged out a car metaphor U.S. officials have repeatedly used to express their wariness about getting stuck in endless negotiations with the EU.
"If we go down that road, we should try to do it on one tank of gas and avoid protracted rounds of negotiations," Biden said.
U.S. officials were stung by the Doha round of world trade talks, which began in 2001 and have never come to a conclusion because of sharp disagreements between the United States, the EU and developing countries.
Still, talks between the United States and the EU could easily take more than a year because of the complexity of the issues involved.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)