Francois Hollande raises doubts about timing of T-TIP

WASHINGTON  U.S. and European trade officials sought to reassure the public on Tuesday that negotiations on a sweeping Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal are continuing despite doubts raised by French President Francois Hollande and his chief trade minister.

The new questions being raised about the T-TIP talks between the U.S. and European Union come at a time when the negotiations are already facing uncertainty because of the U.K.’s vote to leave the 28-member European Union.

Industry officials voiced some concern about the implications for the T-TIP negotiations but said the talks appear to be moving forward.

U.S. and EU negotiators have been discussing the terms of T-TIP for more than three years, seeking to forge a deal that would eliminate tariffs on imports; streamline regulations; remove burdensome technical barriers; and eliminate redundancies in areas such as customs procedures, product safety testing, and certification and labeling requirements.

Sparking a new round of uncertainty, Matthias Fekl, the French secretary of state for foreign trade, said in a radio interview Tuesday that France will soon ask the European Commission to suspend negotiations on the trade deal, according to news reports. Fekl also tweeted a message calling for the end of T-TIP talks. Germany’s minister of economy reportedly said on Sunday the negotiations have failed.

In addition, Hollande, in a separate speech to diplomats Tuesday, reportedly called the talks “unbalanced” and cast doubt about the negotiations being finalized while President Obama is in office.

But the top trade negotiators for the U.S. and EC said Tuesday the talks are on track and continuing.

A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said: “The European Commission and EU member state leaders have clearly reiterated their commitment to moving negotiations forward. We share that commitment and throughout the summer the United States has been focused on identifying pathways to an agreement that address the priorities of both sides.

“Ambassador [Michael] Froman is looking forward to continuing that work when he meets with EU Trade Commissioner [Cecilia] Malmstrom in the coming weeks,” he added.

Malmstrom said in a tweet Tuesday that she is holding a video conference with Froman on T-TIP later in the day and vowed that “negotiations continue.”

Similarly, Margaritis Schinas, chief spokesman for the European Commission, reiterated in a midday briefing with reporters in Brussels that “we think the ball is still rolling.” He declined to comment on statements made by Hollande and Fekl Tuesday.

“We are working on the basis of a unanimous mandate given to us by the 28 member states,” Schinas said.

Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said while the rhetoric appears to be intensifying in some corners, she does not believe T-TIP is dead. But she noted it could potentially be delayed because of the presidential election in the U.S.

“It’s difficult to conclude any trade negotiation during the final months of an administration in the U.S. but certainly not impossible,” Hughes said. “You combine that with the general negative conversation about trade [in the presidential and congressional races in the U.S.] and I think it’s not surprising to see the Europeans pushing back.”

Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said his initial assumption is that comments being made by the French officials are a negotiating stance, as opposed to a loss of confidence by member states in the T-TIP.

“Perhaps people are frustrated at the tenor of the trade debate in the U.S. Perhaps they are frustrated that they haven’t been able to accomplish some negotiating objectives that they wanted to at an earlier stage,” Lamar said.

He said such a sweeping trade deal is a first for both the U.S. and EU, which are equal partners economically, and is not surprised that frustrations may have arisen among 28 countries and the U.S.

“I think if both sides can power through frustrations, the end result will be a trade agreement that is going to work really well for everyone,” Lamar said.