The talks on "data protection and privacy rights of EU citizens" are critical to building and enforcing the confidence needed "to pursue very ambitious agreements that we hope to conclude with the United States, namely in the field of trade and investment," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said following the publication of documents leaked by rogue National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden indicating Washington has been spying on its European allies.
The commission is the 28-nation bloc's executive branch. Snowden remains in legal limbo in a Moscow airport.
France, among the EU nations expressing deep discontent about the surveillance, called last week for postponement of the talks seeking a U.S.-EU free trade area until Washington "clarified" the extent of its spying activities on its allies.
But shortly afterward, Le Monde newspaper revealed France runs a vast surveillance operation like the NSA that also intercepts and stores citizens' phone data and Internet activity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized U.S. espionage agencies for "Cold War" tactics.
The European Parliament voted last week to investigate the matter.
Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at Washington's Peterson Institute for International Economics, told British newspaper The Guardian the spying revelations would become a sideshow.
"I think we will find that everybody has been doing this," he said.
The proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would be a "once-in-a-generation prize, and we are determined to seize it," British Prime Minister David Cameron said last month at the Group of Eight summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders in Northern Ireland.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said he was confident both sides would work out a deal.
"We go into this exercise with eyes wide open. We know there will be challenges. But we also know that there is strong political will at the highest levels on both sides of the Atlantic determined to stay focused and get this done on one tank of gas," he said Monday as the Washington talks began.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, he was convinced a deal would help pull Europe out of its "economic crisis."
"We will work hard to get a result. We will, of course, meet a lot of problems and stumbling stones. But if we reach an agreement, it would be a historic one," he said, adding a free trade agreement would also be "a very good message for the whole world economy."
The deal would cover about 50 percent of global economic output and 30 percent of global trade, and because of its size would create de facto global standards, de Gucht said.
A study by London's Center for Economic Policy Research found a comprehensive trade and investment deal could increase the European economy by some $153 billion a year, and the U.S. economy by an annual $122 billion.
In addition, an average EU family of four might see an additional $700 in disposable income, while a U.S. family of four might see an additional $841, said the report, which can be found at tinyurl.com/UPI-Economic-Report.
At the same time, public interest groups raised concerns the negotiations were focused too strongly on serving corporate interests and deals would be cut that would weaken consumer-protection and -health standards.
"We are highly skeptical that an agreement focused on regulatory 'harmonization' will serve consumer interests, workers' rights, the environment, and other areas of public interest. It could lead to lower standards and regulatory ceilings instead of floors," the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, a large coalition of U.S. and European consumer groups, said in an open letter to Obama, Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
Van Rompuy represents EU heads of state and government.
"We will be monitoring the negotiations closely and will defend our rights against behind-closed-door decision-making at the service of corporate interests," the coalition said, calling for negotiating texts to be released to the public.
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