• Europe's trade chief vows more intense talks in coming months
  • EU-Japan commercial agreement deemed possible this year

European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said the EU and U.S. can still reach a free-trade agreement before President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017, pledging an intensification of talks in the coming months.

“That is our Plan A -- we’re working very hard from both sides to achieve that,” Malmstroem said in a Bloomberg Television interview from Washington on Thursday. “Content is more important than speed, but our aim and our sincere wish is to do everything we can before the end of the Obama administration.”

The EU and U.S. have spent two-and-a-half years working on an accord to expand the world’s biggest economic relationship by eliminating tariffs on goods, enlarging services markets, opening public procurement and bolstering regulatory cooperation. Obama and European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said the planned Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is a policy priority.

The goal of including regulatory cooperation in TTIP has slowed the negotiations begun in July 2013, according to Malmstroem, who said this area would cut red tape for businesses ranging from pharmaceuticals to textiles.

Political Hurdles

“This takes a lot of time, but is not politically controversial,” she said. More political hurdles to a TTIP agreement include EU access to the U.S. public-procurement market and the protection of European geographical indications for agricultural products, according to Malmstroem.

“We will still need to negotiate further,” she said. “We still have some work to do.”’

The EU and Japan also have a chance to strike a free-trade accord this year as long as the Japanese government shows more political commitment to a deal, according to Malmstroem. These negotiations have been going on for three years.

“It has been a bit stuck lately because we don’t see enough movement from the Japanese side,” Malmstroem said. “Hopefully we can conclude this year as well.”

In December, Europe’s lead negotiator in the trade talks with Japan, Mauro Petriccione, said the Japanese government should aim to reach an agreement in 2016 or risk undermining EU interest in a deal.

Petriccione said at the time that an EU-Japan accord could be struck within months if Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe commits to scrapping import duties on European foods and drinks, scaling back non-tariff barriers for cars and opening up public procurement in the railway industry. In exchange, the EU is prepared to eliminate its tariff on autos from Japan and ease access to Europe for Japanese executives, he said.

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