WASHINGTON — Europeans can be downright fussy when it comes to their food.
Many of them think, for example, that only the rich, hard cheese that has been made for hundreds of years in the Parma region of Italy should be labeled as Parmesan — not the stuff made by Kraft Foods or others.
And despite repeated assurances from the United States, many of them have questioned whether it’s really safe to eat meat injected with hormones or the genetically modified crops that Americans gobble up.
Food issues could be among the trickiest to overcome as U.S. negotiators aim to expand trade with the European Union, moving on a plan announced Tuesday night by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech.
Obama said he wanted the United States to approve a comprehensive deal with the European Union “because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”
And while trade deals with poorer countries often force U.S. negotiators to try to raise others’ standards for labor, the environment and food safety, the shoe could be on the other foot this time around.
On Wednesday, administration officials acknowledged that they’ll be forced to confront a host of sensitive issues as they seek to wrap up a new deal by the end of 2014. But they said the payoff could be huge, with millions of jobs at stake.
“This is potentially a very big deal,” said Michael Froman, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for international economics.
In a conference call with reporters, Froman said that the United States and the European Union already account for one-third of the total trade in goods and services around the world and that 13 million jobs already exist because of the trade relationship between the two. He said those numbers could grow substantially and that “the stars could well be aligned to resolve issues that have been difficult to resolve before.”
And he said that agriculture issues, despite their difficulty, will be a central part of the negotiations.
“Nobody should be under any impression that we are not going to be resolving agricultural issues,” said Froman.
No one’s expecting it to be easy.
Differing tariffs and government subsidies on farm goods are sure to yield even more fights.
“The negotiations will be a hard slog, particularly in the agriculture sector, but the resulting billions of dollars in increased exports will be worth the effort,” said Bill Frymoyer, a senior adviser and trade expert at the Washington law firm Stewart and Stewart whose experience dates to the early 1990s, when he worked on the North American Free Trade Agreement as a top aide to then-House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt.
In his speech to Congress, Obama made it clear that he intends to continue his push to increase U.S. exports during his second term. Three years ago, the president said he wanted to double exports by 2014.
Obama said U.S. negotiators intend to soon complete negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal involving the United States, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Mexico and Canada.
And as required by law, the president notified Congress that his administration will move to begin immediate negotiations on an expanded deal with the European Union, called the Transatlantic Trade and
Investment Partnership. But before the two sides can begin, the European Commission will seek a mandate from its member states to formally negotiate.
In a statement released by the British Embassy in Washington, Prime Minister David Cameron said that completing a deal will require “hard work and bold decisions on both sides,” adding that “it’s great” that Obama had decided to proceed.
“A deal will create jobs on both sides of the Atlantic and make our countries more prosperous,” Cameron said.
In the conference call with reporters, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the new agreement will give the United States “a historic opportunity” to press for the full elimination of tariffs and to come up with new rules for food and strong intellectual property rights, among other things.
The United States wants to take advantage of the growing political will in Europe and domestically to reach accord on a new deal, Kirk said. “We should be ambitious, and we should deal with all of these issues,” he said. “Everything is on the table across all sectors.”
Frymoyer said consumers could benefit if the agreement forces the government to adopt higher standards for food safety and on environmental and labor issues.
“Clearly, it is easier to obtain progressive trade objectives with high-wage, high-standard nations like those in the EU than in some other trade negotiations with developing nations,” he said.
Some are skeptical.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, predicted that U.S. firms would try to get Europe to gut tougher regulations on food safety and chemicals, among other things, while European firms would object to stronger drug and medical devices safety and testing standards in the U.S.
“The dirty little secret is that it is not mainly about trade, but rather would target for elimination the strongest consumer and environmental policies on either side of the Atlantic,” she said.
As with all trade deals, the devil will be in the details.
“The reason we haven’t had a trade agreement like this between ourselves in the last several decades isn’t because no one hasn’t thought of it,” said Froman, who is regarded as a top candidate to succeed Kirk when he leaves later this month to move back to his home state of Texas.
“It’s because there have always been issues that have tripped us up.”