Meetings held today (Feb. 6) between European Union Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman and outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk have failed to finalize a report of the High-Level Working Group (HWLG), which is expected to recommend comprehensive negotiations for a U.S.-EU trade and investment deal, according to informed sources.
The officials also did not agree on when the report would be released, sources said.
The lack of a concrete outcome falls short of expectations by senior EU officials who late last week expressed confidence that the report, which they considered close to conclusion, would be finalized at the Feb. 6 meetings, sources said. Those hopes seemed to be dashed immediately before the meeting when both sides made clear that the report was unlikely to be released today, sources said.
Business supporters of a U.S.-EU trade deal had also hoped the HLWG report would be released after De Gucht meetings with Froman and Kirk. One source questioned whether the delay was due to serious substantive problems or simply related to political considerations.
As of last week, the two sides had not settled on how to handle regulatory issues in a potential negotiation (Inside U.S. Trade, Feb. 1). One informed source said they had also not settled whether to describe an eventual deal as a free trade agreement or use some other term.
Some business sources also expressed surprise about the outcome of the meeting in light of the generally positive comments that Vice President Joe Biden made in Germany over the weekend about deepening U.S.-EU trade relations. Biden said he believed the political will existed to overcome long-standing trade barriers and that a U.S.-EU trade deal was within reach.
But two private-sector sources said they viewed the Biden speech as a general endorsement of a strong U.S.-EU relationship, and not necessarily a specific commitment to do a U.S.-EU trade deal in the near term. Once the HLWG is issued, it still has to be endorsed by political leaders.
One informed source said that the latest draft of the HLWG report goes beyond the interim report by stating that a potential negotiation should produce rules that go beyond those now enshrined in the World Trade Organization.
That is consistent with remarks made by an EU trade official, who said in a Jan. 29 panel discussion that both sides believe that if the U.S. and the EU pursue a trade negotiation separate from the WTO, it has to go beyond the current multilateral rules.
De Gucht arrived in Washington on Feb. 5, attended a farewell dinner for Kirk, and held meetings in the morning of Feb. 6 before departing to Canada mid-day. He and EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos are meeting with their Canadian counterparts in the hope of concluding the negotiations for an EU-Canada free trade agreement.
Spokespeople for the U.S. and the EU would only say midday that the two sides had good meetings, and an EU spokesman added that officials made “good progress.”