WASHINGTON Congressional support for a proposed free trade agreement with the European Union will depend on the 27-nation group's willingness to dismantle long-time barriers to U.S. farm products and address other concerns, two senior senators said on Tuesday.
"The EU has historically imposed sanitary and phytosanitary measures that act as significant barriers to U.S.-EU trade," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, and Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the panel, said in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
"We urge you to resolve these and other unwarranted agricultural barriers as part of the FTA (free trade agreement) negotiations on both an individual and a systemic basis," the senators said in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
President Barack Obama is widely expected to call for comprehensive trade and investment talks with the EU in his annual State of the Union speech on Tuesday, after more than a year of exploratory discussions.
The Senate Finance Committee and the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee have jurisdiction over trade in Congress, giving lawmakers on those panels an important role in deciding U.S. negotiating objectives.
U.S. policymakers have long been frustrated by what they consider the EU's "non-scientific approach" to food safety that has blocked imports of U.S. genetically modified crops, poultry treated with chlorine washes to kill pathogens and meat from animals fed the growth stimulant ractopamine.
Since tariffs between the United States and the European Union are relatively low, reducing regulatory barriers in areas like agricultural and chemicals are expected to be a big part of negotiations on the proposed pact.
The EU recently lifted bans on imports of U.S. live swine and beef washed with lactic acid as one way to help build confidence it can and will address U.S. agricultural concerns.
The EU has justified many of its agricultural restrictions using the so-called "precautionary principle," a guideline that favors action to protect public health even in cases where there may not be clear scientific evidence of threat.
Reflecting the view of most U.S. farm and business groups, Baucus and Hatch stressed that agricultural disputes with the EU must not be resolved by incorporating the precautionary principle into the regulatory provisions of the proposed transatlantic trade pact.
The two senators also said the pact must contain strong intellectual property rights protections, significantly reduce or eliminate remaining tariffs on farm and manufactured goods and tear down barriers to services trade.
They also said they planned to pursue legislation known as "trade promotion authority" and urged the Obama administration to work with them on that.
Trade protection authority, which is controversial with many in Obama's Democratic party, would allow the White House to submit trade agreements to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote, without any amendments.
The White House last had the authority in 2007. It had long been considered essential to persuade other countries to put their best offers on the table in trade talks with the United States. Obama did not push for renewal during his first four years in office.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Jackie Frank)