Wroclaw Global Forum
Panelists discuss the possibility of trans-Atlantic free trade agreements during the Wroclaw Global Forum in Wroclaw, Poland. IBTimes/Howard Koplowitz

WROCLAW, POLAND -- A panel of diplomatic, political and business leaders expressed optimism at the prospects of free trade agreements between the U.S., Canada and Europe at the Wroclaw Global Forum here Thursday, a two-day conference devoted to discussions on democracy, economics and security. Yet the panelists also expressed some reservations about such agreements, with some pointing to a leadership crisis and others citing regulatory barriers.

All of the panelists, including former Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, ex-U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee Feinstein and Canadian Ambassador to the European Union David Plunkett, agreed that free trade is in the best interest of North America and Europe. The discussion was titled “The Transatlantic Marketplace and the Community of Values.”

“Economically, this is extremely important and makes a huge amount of sense,” Feinstein said, pointing out that trade between the U.S. and EU in 2012 amounted to some $650 billion. He also noted that the U.S. and EU combined represent 50 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and one-third of the globe’s trade flow.

Plunkett said that Canada and the EU are “close to an agreement” on a comprehensive free-trade agreement and added that Canada is also negotiating with 60 different countries on similar deals. Comparing his country to the U.S., Plunkett noted that Canada doesn’t have as many issues as America does when it comes to free trade agreements with Europe. Among the contentious issues are intellectual property disputes and regulations. “We don’t have the same cultural problems as our U.S. friends do,” Plunkett said.

Asked about the possibility of there not being an agreement between the U.S. and Europe on free trade in the near future, Feinstein said there was “genuine risk” that a deal doesn’t pan out. “The American economy is doing better now, so the impetus in the public’s mind can be less strong,” he said.

On the other hand, Feinstein said that U.S. President Barack Obama’s nod to the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, or TTIP, in his 2013 State of the Union address was an encouraging signal. “It’s a sign of the fact that he sees this as an important part of his second-term agenda, an important part of his legacy,” Feinstein said. Obama indicated that he’d like to get a TTIP agreement done by 2014.

Feinstein was optimistic about that possibility, likening the discussion with Europe on free trade to a big university’s fundraising campaign: when a university declares a financing goal but already has half of the money needed by the time the campaign is announced. “I think we’re not starting from scratch,” he said. “We’re starting from a good place.”

While Plunkett also had a rosy view, he said regulatory barriers are the biggest threat to trade agreements between North America and Europe. “Frankly, you guys have mastered red tape,” Plunkett said of the continent.

Aziz, the former Pakistani prime minister, said he sees the lack of leadership as the largest obstacle. “The leadership we have addressing these issues ... does not come up to the level that is required,” he said. “Leaders worry about the next election. Therein lies the problem. That is, to me, the crux of the problem.”