European parliament deals setback to EU-U.S. trade talks

STRASBOURG, France – The European Parliament on Thursday, March 14, failed to back the launch of trade talks between the EU and the United States, dealing an unexpected blow to efforts to avert a trade war.

Pursuing a limited trade deal was the central part of a truce agreed in July when European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and US President Donald Trump pledged no new tariffs following those on steel and aluminium.

That announcement allowed the two sides to reduce tensions at a time when Trump threatened to impose steep duties on European automobiles – a threat he has renewed in recent weeks.

MEPs meeting in the eastern French city of Strasbourg on Thursday failed to pass an approval of an EU mandate, after a rebellion by lawmakers changed the wording of the text.

In the final tally, 223 voted against the recommendation to start the talks and 198 in favor, with 37 abstentions.

The European Parliament only has an advisory role with regard to the EU's negotiating mandate, but it will have the final say once an agreement has been concluded.

"We have taken note of the vote, on the draft EU-US negotiating directives. We await the outcome of the discussions in Council," a spokesman for the European Commission, the EU executive, said.

"The Commission will of course involve the European Parliament throughout in this process," he added.

The European Council represents member states.

The setback in parliament comes as debate over the contours of the deal already underlined deep transatlantic divisions, with the US insisting that farming be included – an idea rejected by the EU.

But powerful Germany deeply wants the deal in order to placate Trump and avoid the auto tariffs that would punish the country's cherished exports, a prospect Chancellor Angela Merkel has labelled "frightening."

France however is dragging its feet, fearing that entering trade negotiations with Trump could fire up domestic opposition just months ahead of European elections, set for May 22 to 26.

Paris is especially wary after the failure of talks on TTIP, a far more ambitious transatlantic trade plan, which stalled amid fears a deal with Washington would undermine EU food and health standards. –