Member States approve launch of US trade talks

The move is designed but not guaranteed to smooth strained relations between world's two largest economies

EU Member States gave the green light on Thursday for Brussels to open trade talks with Washington, ending months of stalemate due to opposition from France. Yet, France said it would nonetheless make a show of opposing the start of the talks when the negotiating mandate is put to a vote of EU agriculture ministers on Monday, seen as largely symbolic.

The European Commission, which coordinates trade policy for the 28 member European Union, has sought clearance for two negotiating mandates - one to cut tariffs on industrial goods, the other to make it easier for companies to show products meet EU or US standards. The Commission presented its mandates in January and found support from most EU members. France resisted, however, insisting that agriculture should not feature in the talks but that climate change provisions should - a difficult demand given US President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.

In July, Brussels and Washington reached a detente when Trump agreed to hold off from imposing punitive tariffs on EU cars as the two sides sought to improve economic ties. Yet, US tariffs still apply to EU steel and aluminium and Trump threatened on Tuesday to impose further tariffs on $11bn worth of EU products related to a long-running aircraft subsidy dispute between the US' Boeing and the European Airbus.

Envoys from the EU's 28 Member States had struggled to agree on a mandate to open trans-Atlantic talks, with some fearing the revival of a trade war with President Donald Trump. It seems, however, that they had agreed by consensus to finally begin the negotiations.

Thus, pursuing a limited trade deal is a central component of the transatlantic truce negotiated in July and it seems that envoys from the EU's 28 Member States have now agreed by consensus to finally begin the negotiations. In another hopeful sign, on Thursday, a presidential aide said that France would "probably be the only country to vote against", citing President Emmanuel Macron's insistence on the US first signing back up to the Paris climate accord as justification.

"It would not be for right for France to start these negotiations unless our environmental demands are met," the aide said. According to his statement, Paris is also smarting over Trump's latest tariff threats and his refusal to reverse steep tariffs on European steel and aluminium.

But only a qualified majority of EU members need to support the talks in order for them to begin, meaning France's "non" will not hold up the process.

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