On 11 January 2019 and 18 January 2019, the United States Trade Representative (“USTR”) and the European Commission (“Commission”) released their respective negotiating objectives for a U.S.-EU trade agreement, potentially marking a new phase in the transatlantic trade relationship. The release follows from the joint agenda agreed to in July 2018 by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and U.S. President Donald Trump to work together toward “zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods,” increased cooperation on regulatory issues and standards, and protecting European and U.S. companies from unfair global trade practices. The release could also signify an important expansion of market opportunities for EU and U.S. companies.
The road ahead is fraught with obstacles, however, as the EU and U.S. negotiating positions differentiate substantially. The USTR’s summary of specific negotiating objectives seeks a broad free trade agreement with the EU, including on sticky issues such as agriculture, while the Commission aims to limit trade negotiations to reciprocal commitments on conformity assessment and industrial goods. This makes any future transatlantic trade negotiations challenging at best and raises the question of whether the two sides will be able to arrive at an agreement at all. The situation is further complicated by the Trump administration’s ongoing 232 investigations on imports of certain automobiles and parts, as the EU stands ready to suspend any trade talks and retaliate with duties on U.S. exports should the investigation lead to the imposition of tariffs on certain EU automotive products.
EU Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström, has clearly stated that the EU is “not proposing to restart a broad free trade agreement negotiation with the US,” referring to the breakdown of negotiations, five years ago, of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). On 30 January 2019, the Commission published a progress report concerning the joint agenda agreed to in July 2018. The report indicates that talks between the parties have so far focused on potential regulatory cooperation initiatives. The EU has also taken some measures to avoid the escalation of trade tensions with the United States.