European Union trade ministers were set Friday
for a showdown on a landmark free trade deal with the United States,
after France threatened to block the launch of negotiations out of
concerns for its film and music industries.
A pact with Washington would deliver the largest free trade area in the world, affecting more than 800 million people. The daily flow of goods and services between the US and the EU amounts to almost 2 billion euros (2.7 billion dollars).
"This is one of the most meaningful, one of the most important, one of the most far reaching initiatives that have been taken," the head of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Angel Gurria, said Thursday during a visit to Brussels.
But the growth and job-boosting measure quickly hit its first hurdle, as the cinema industry joined forces with French politicians to push for an exclusion of audiovisual services from the deal. They worry about Europe's film and music sector being harmed by Hollywood.
"France will oppose the opening of the negotiations if culture is not excluded," Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned Wednesday.
The European Commission has promised to protect existing film subsidies and quotas, but has refused a wholesale exemption of the audiovisual sector.
There would be a "price to pay" for coming to the table with preconditions, the US ambassador to the EU agreed.
"If a mandate is released that constrains the negotiators - whatever you want to call it, a carve-out, a red line, an exception - if it's not a clean mandate, it will increase the pressure on our side to do the same," William Kennard told the Financial Times daily.
The European Parliament has upped the stakes by endorsing the calls for the audiovisual exclusion. It has to approve any deal reached with the US.
The EU's 27 ministers are under pressure to agree on a negotiating mandate on Friday so that the start of negotiations can be officially announced at a Group of 8 summit in Northern Ireland next week.
As a compromise for France, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht will suggest an "iron-clad guarantee" that no negotiating offer will be made to the US in the area of audiovisual services without the prior approval of all EU governments, sources told dpa.
Negotiators on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed hope that the agreement can be concluded by mid-2014, when the current commission term expires and mid-term elections are due in the US.
There are other areas, however, that are also expected to prove tricky, such as agricultural exports and military supplies.
"We assume these are going to be difficult negotiations," Britain and Spain's trade ministers, Vince Cable and Jaime Garcia-Legaz, said in a joint message Thursday. "For the greater good, we will need to push our particular interests to the background."
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