WASHINGTON - The United States and European Union pledged on Tuesday to work to reduce regulatory barriers that impede trade across the Atlantic, but said a free-trade pact was not in the cards right now.
The goal ... is to build on the already very deep and broad relationship we have between the U.S. and the European Union to find further ways to integrate our economies, said Michael Froman, White House deputy national security adviser.
He spoke after a meeting of the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC), a U.S.-EU forum created in 2007 with the goal of creating a barrier-free transatlantic marketplace.
It was the first TEC meeting since President Barack Obama took office in January and came one week before Obama hosts European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso for a summit meeting focused on economic and security issues.
The two sides agreed by their next meeting in 2010 to identify key sectors including labeling, energy efficiency and nanotechnology for increased cooperation on regulation.
They also announced plans for a new U.S.-EU Energy Council and to establish an innovation dialogue aimed at creating jobs in fields such as information and communication technologies, health information and clean energy.
Together, the United States and the European Union account for more than half the world's economic output and each is the other's most important trade and investment partner.
Swedish Trade Minister Ewa Bjorling said in Washington on Monday that she saw growing interest in Europe for a free-trade pact with the United States.
But Guenter Verheugen, the European Commission's vice president for enterprise and industry, quickly squashed that idea during a news conference with Froman.
It's simply not on the agenda and I do not foresee it in the near future, Verheugen said. He noted the concerns that would raise among others about the commitment of the U.S. and EU to concluding the Doha round of world trade talks.
Verheugen argued a free-trade agreement would not address the regulatory barriers that are the real obstacle to expanded transatlantic trade, since tariffs between the United State and the EU are already low.
The meeting took place against the backdrop of a 20-percent rise in the value of the euro versus the dollar since March that has raised concerns among European exporters.
U.S. imports from the EU dropped 28.3 percent in the first eight months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008, while U.S. exports to the community fell 23.1 percent.
Even so, total commercial exchanges across the Atlantic amount to a staggering $4.4 trillion annually and more than 14 million workers on both sides depend on it, EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton said on Monday.
Two-thirds of those commercial exchanges are investments, underscoring the huge stake each side has in the economic health of the other, Ashton said.
The TEC got off to a rocky start two years ago when it set a high-profile goal of resolving a long-running dispute over EU regulatory barriers to imports of American poultry.
The effort failed with Washington deciding instead to file a complaint at the World Trade Organization.
It was a big, big mistake, Verheugen said, referring to the decision to address poultry. After a trial-and-error period, we now have a clear direction for the Transatlantic Economic Council.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Chris Wilson)