U.S. and EU face 'heavy lift' to get trade deal: EU ambassador

LONDON (Reuters) - The United States and the European Union face a major challenge to achieve a free trade deal before President Barack Obama’s term of office ends in January 2017, the EU’s ambassador to the United States said on Monday.

Doubts have been growing among EU officials about whether a trade deal can be achieved given the United States’ current focus on a trade deal with Pacific nations and deep splits within the European Parliament in Brussels.

David O’Sullivan, a former trade negotiator who is now the EU’s ambassador to the United States, said a deal within the lifetime of the current U.S. administration was “still in the realm of possibility” but would be difficult to reach.

“I think it’s doable but I think it’s going to be a very heavy, heavy lift,” O’Sullivan said at an event for fellow alumni of Trinity College Dublin at the Irish Embassy in London.

He added that, beginning in mid-2016, the U.S. presidential election could make it hard to push through a deal.

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she still hoped the EU would reach an outline framework for a deal with the United States by the end of the year, shortly after the U.S. Congress agreed to debate giving Obama more negotiating powers.

Within Europe, some politicians and many voters, especially in Germany and Austria, are dubious about the deal - known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) - because they fear it could weaken consumer protection standards.

O’Sullivan said businesses needed to promote the economic benefits better, and urged negotiators to focus less on the detail and more on the geopolitical damage if the world’s two largest advanced trading blocs could not reach an agreement.

“TTIP is more than a traditional trade agreement. It also has geostrategic importance. How can we encourage China and others to value and promote an open, rules-based trading system if the EU and U.S. cannot resolve their differences?”

At the same event, Ireland’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Mulhall, also reiterated his country’s commitment to urge Britons to vote to stay in the EU ahead of a referendum due by the end of 2017.

“We want Britain to remain in the EU. We want not ‘Brexit’ but ‘Bremain’.”

The United Kingdom is the Irish Republic’s biggest trading partner. The two countries share a long, largely open border between the Republic and the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland.

Editing by Jonathan Oatis