The European Union’s executive said on Monday it had a unanimous mandate from the bloc’s 28 members to finalise negotiations on a free trade deal with the United States, a day after Germany’s economy minister said the talks had “de facto failed”.
Sigmar Gabriel of Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, said on Sunday that negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) had failed because Europe rejected some U.S. demands.
Asked to comment on Gabriel’s remarks, a European Commission spokesman said “the ball is still rolling” on TTIP.
“Although trade talks take time, the ball is rolling right now and the Commission is making steady progress in the ongoing TTIP negotiations,” Margaritis Schinas told a news conference.
“Talks are now indeed entering crucial stage as we have proposals for almost all chapters on the table and a good sense of the outline of the future agreement.”
In Berlin, Germany’s leading industry associations were critical of Gabriel’s remarks and urged the German government to show greater commitment to free trade deals.
The head of industry association BDI, Ulrich Grillo, said it was “astonishing” that Gabriel, who is also vice chancellor and head of the co-governing Social Democrats, had declared the TTIP talks a failure when negotiations were still going on.
Top officials of other industry associations such as VDMA and the Auto Industry Association VDA also spoke out against Gabriel’s comments which highlight growing divisions within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition ahead of next year’s elections.
Three years of negotiations failed to resolve multiple differences, including over food and environmental safety, with critics saying the pact would hand too much power to big multinationals at the expense of consumers and workers.
Backers of a sweeping U.S.-EU free trade deal see it bringing economic gains on both sides of the Atlantic. EU trade ministers will discuss the issue when they next meet in Bratislava on Sept.22.
Schinas said the Commission was still ready to finalise the deal by the end of the year but not at the expense of “Europe’s safety, health, social and data protection standards, or our cultural diversity”.
Commenting separately on Gabriel’s remarks, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said he believed arriving at a deal would benefit both the EU and the United States.
“It would be better for all sides to agree,” he said. “Of course, not at an expense of our interests. We have to defend our interests, but we also have to negotiate and conclude this agreement. It would be a big boost for economies, jobs, trade.”
Britain’s June vote to leave the EU has further clouded the picture, though Schinas insisted Brussels was still negotiating on behalf of all 28 members of the bloc, including London.
But the prospect of a Brexit has triggered fresh doubt that TTIP could be completed in the final months of U.S. President Barack Obama’s term, as well as over Britain’s exact status in any deal as London ponders its future ties with the EU.
Source: Reuters (Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska,; Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin and by Nerijus Adomaitis)