European Union trade ministers are gathering in Bratislava later Thursday for a meeting EU officials hope will strengthen support for the bloc’s planned trade pact with Canada, even as a more controversial deal with the U.S. languishes.
The meeting, which continues Friday in the Slovak capital, comes as the EU’s planned trade agreements have run into difficulties against a backdrop of flagging political support and growing public opposition to the deals as anti-globalization sentiment intensifies across the bloc.
Ministers are expected to focus on the EU-Canada trade pact–or CETA — that was agreed earlier this year following five years of negotiations. Both sides hope to sign the deal at a summit here in late October and start implementing it provisionally at the start of next year.
“This agreement is the most forward-looking free-trade agreement that Canada or the EU have ever negotiated,” EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmströ m wrote in a blog Wednesday.
Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland will also be at the Bratislava gathering to meet EU trade officials and allay any concerns some might have about the EU-Canada trade pact.
For the European Commission, which represents the EU’s 28 countries in trade talks, completing CETA could be seen as a litmus test of its ability to negotiate trade deals for the bloc.
“It is about time to conclude, to bring [CETA] home, to make sure that we can seize all the opportunities,” said Markus Beyrer, head of BusinessEurope, an advocacy group representing European businesses.
Ratifying CETA would also signal that the EU is a reliable trade partner, offering the EU a much-needed boost at a time when talks with the U.S. on the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership-or TTIP-seem to be faltering.
TTIP has faced an unprecedented backlash in countries like Belgium, Austria and Germany, where hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the country to protest.
Opponents, including trade unions and environmental groups, oppose the planned deal, saying it is anti-democratic, threatens labor standards, and could harm environmental and food safety standards.
France’s Trade Minister Matthias Fekl said in August he would use the coming ministers’ meeting to call for an end to TTIP negotiations. His comments came a few days after German Vice Chancellor Sigmar GabrielÂ declared the U.S.–EU deal dead.
But even the less controversial CETA hasn’t had a smooth ride. Following criticism from European capitals including Berlin and Vienna, the commission said that more than 30 national and regional parliaments across the EU should get their say on the agreement, delaying its full implementation.
Still, CETA ratification cleared an important hurdle earlier this week after Germany’s Social Democratic Party gave its blessing to the deal.
Mr. Gabriel, who is also the chairman of the party and the country’s economy minister, has praised the agreement as an exemplary trade deal that could save EU exporters about ?500 million ($557 million) a year in duties, and has drawn contrasts to the stalled TTIP negotiations.
Both sides have said they hope to complete negotiations over TTIP before U.S. President Barack Obama’s term ends in January.
But, privately, EU diplomats say the deadline looks impossible, pointing to the fact that many difficult open issues persist, including over European rules protecting regional food names such as feta or Parma ham and U.S. rules protecting domestic companies bidding for government contracts.
Still, the planned deals can count on the support of the EU’s more pro-trade members which, in a letter sent to Ms. MalmstrÃ¶ m last week, reiterated their commitment to both CETA and TTIP, stressing that trade is necessary for the creation of new jobs.