Walker's World: A mega trade pact?

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Dec. 17, 2012 at 12:07 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- As if to show that they can from time to time lift their eyes from own troubled navels, the European Union and the United States have revived the venerable scheme of a free trade pact between the two giants of the global economy.

It is a consummation devoutly to be wished. With a $17 trillion European economy and a $15 trillion U.S. economy, these two relatively like-minded assemblies account for well over half the planet's economy activity. They are democracies, with common commitments to the rule of law, free speech and free press.

In economic terms, they are already joined at the hip. More than 10 million people work for companies that are subsidiaries of the other partner. They have invested around $4 trillion in one another's economies. They trade around $42 billion a day back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.

Such a pact would be very good for both partners. An EU commission assessment reckons that such a deal could boost trans-Atlantic trade 50 percent, add an immediate half a percent to annual gross domestic product growth and create more than 100,000 jobs for each of them.

Although existing tariffs are low, averaging less than 5 percent, scrapping them and even cutting only half of regulation and non-tariff barriers could add $250 billion to Europe's GDP and $150 billion in the United States.

"If we get this right, an agreement that opens markets and liberalizes trade would shore up our global competitiveness for the next century, creating jobs and generating hundreds of billions of dollars for our economies," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when refloating the idea last month.

The plan isn't only about trade and economics but could cement the broader strategic relationship, which has been under strain since the Obama administration's understandable pivot to strengthen its focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

"We should keep an eye on the bigger picture," suggests European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, "that liberal democracies should stick together despite the crisis that to some extent has undermined belief in liberal-democracy."

But we have been here before, back in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration and EU Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan tried hard to secure such a pact, then dubbed the Trans-Atlantic Marketplace, only to be frustrated in 1998 by French opposition.

The French put up some flimsy objections, saying it undermine the World Trade Organization dispute resolution process and complicate WTO negotiations on trade in services. Mainly it was fear that U.S. farm goods would undercut French agriculture and the traditional French suspicions of Anglo-Saxon domination.

Now that Europe is dominated by the German economy, and the French are suffering unemployment of more than 10 percent (and 26 percent among young people), another French veto seems much less likely. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have backed the plan.

There remain serious hurdles, over farm trade, agricultural subsidies and genetically modified foodstuffs, along with differences over intellectual property rights, green-related energy issues and carbon trading.

If the French want to drag matters out, they could easily do so. But this time, France is in a weaker position and with their economies heading into another recession the other EU partners are likely to be less accommodating of France's concerns.

A high-level working group of officials from the European Union and the United States is expected to report its findings and recommendations before U.S. President Barack Obama's second inauguration, and in theory serious negotiations could begin in February.

That working group has already established that key constituencies in the United States are already on board, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and labor unions.

"The opportunity is there. It is golden. We should take it," argues Peter Chase, vice president for Europe for the Chamber of Commerce, which sees such a deal adding at least $180 billion to the two economies over five years.

"The AFL-CIO believes that increasing trade ties with the EU could be beneficial for both American and European workers," the labor union federation said in a statement.

This time, the deal might be reached the more easily since the latest U.S. trade deal with South Korea, which the Europeans used as a template for their own deal with Seoul.

"What is notable is that each side has been able to make these commitments to Korea but not to each other," notes Jeffrey Schott, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Maybe this time, the Trans-Atlantic Marketplace can be achieved, much to the delayed delight of Britain's current deputy prime minister, the Liberal-Democrat Nick Clegg, who was part of Brittan's team when the deal looked like happening 15 years ago -- until the French said no.

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