U.S., Europe step up efforts on trade deal with new offers

U.S., Europe step up efforts on trade deal with new offers

© Francois Lenoir / Reuters

WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States and the European Union promised to cut tariffs on almost all types of imported goods in a bid to wrap up a free trade pact by the end of 2016, negotiators for the two parties said on Friday.

Although the main benefits of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are seen in agreeing on regulation and common standards to cut business costs, the new market access offers mark an important step forward for the two-year-old talks, which have been languishing.

After negotiations in Miami, negotiators said they would step up efforts in a bid to wrap up the deal by the end of next year, before U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office.

"The next four months are going to be important to our hopes of completing TTIP during the Obama administration," said Dan Mullaney, the chief U.S. negotiator.

Chief EU negotiator Ignacio Garcia-Bercero said the new offers exchanged this week would eliminate duties on 97 percent of tariff lines - a lot more than Washington had first offered, but only a slight increase on Brussels' initial proposal.

Although average tariffs on the nearly $700 billion a year worth of goods traded between the two blocs are below 3 percent, some individual products have import taxes in the double-digits.

"We had a first opportunity to compare the offers, to discuss them and I think there is a general recognition that they fulfill the criteria that we have set out for ourselves,” Garcia-Bercero told reporters.

Negotiators declined to specify which goods were excluded from the new offers, but EU officials have said agriculture is one sensitive area where protections would remain.

Agricultural products make up about 5 percent of two-way EU-U.S. goods exports and more than half have tariffs, World Trade Organization data shows.

As part of the accelerated timeline, the two sides plan in February to exchange offers on purchases of goods and services by government departments and agencies, the negotiators said. They aim to discuss market access for financial services in the coming weeks.

Both topics are controversial. In the United States, a growing number of states have "Buy America" rules giving preference to locally-made products.

For its part, Europe declined to offer greater access to its banking and insurance markets because the United States does not want to harmonize financial regulations. U.S. lawmakers are concerned TTIP could weaken reforms designed to prevent another financial crisis.

(Reporting by Krista Hughes in Washington and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Christian Plumb)