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Politics

EU quickly building a free trade perimeter around US

Brussels is seeking trade deals in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.   © Reuters

BRUSSELS -- The European Union is leveraging the economic partnership agreement it struck with Japan this summer to fast track similar deals with Latin America and Asia-Pacific countries, countering an inward-looking U.S.

Building bridges, not walls

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, called the preliminary economic partnership agreement signed July 6 with Tokyo "a powerful message to the world that we stand for open and fair trade." Now the EU is directing that momentum toward renegotiating a free trade agreement with Mexico and closing another with Mercosur, the four-member trade bloc formed by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The aim is to ink those deals by the end of the year, or around the same time the EU will finalize the Japanese EPA, according to a senior EU official.  

Driving this stepped up activity is the desire to add political pressure on Washington, which has become more protectionist under President Donald Trump. The White House withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and it has been renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico since Aug. 18.

If trade talks with the EU go well, Mexico is seen as being able to gain an advantage in its dealings with the U.S. In that scenario, the end of the year would be the best time to reach a compromise with the EU, said a senior EU official.

Mexico and the EU signed a free trade deal in 2000, and the two sides have been bargaining on updated provisions since last year.

At a time when some want to build walls, we need more than ever to be building bridges

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom

The EU had initiated talks with Mercosur in 1999, but the parties have yet to sign an agreement. Obstacles include Argentina's political and economic strife, and concerns over imports of cheap Latin American beef and sugar.

However, the rise of U.S. protectionism has given the EU a new sense of purpose. "At a time when some want to build walls, we need more than ever to be building bridges," said EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom. "We have a unique chance to build this transatlantic bridge."

The EU will conduct a leaders' summit with Latin American countries in October, and the goal is to reach an agreement by the time Argentina hosts the World Trade Organization ministerial conferences in December in Buenos Aires.

And with the Pacific rim

Meanwhile, the EU plans to begin discussing new FTAs with Australia and New Zealand as early as this fall. It is preparing to present the proposed scope of the trade deals to EU member nations and the European Parliament after German federal elections wrap up Sept. 24.

The EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed this March to create a framework to restart bilateral FTA talks. Already-signed free trade accords with Vietnam and Singapore are in the process of being ratified. If things go as planned, the EU will create an enormous trading bloc that will surround the U.S. from both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

When the EU was negotiating its EPA with Japan, it principally focused on non-tariff barriers such as automobile and pharmaceutical safety standards, as well as drawing up rules for intellectual property, investments and other areas. By extending its regulatory reach beyond the European borders, the EU is seen creating a sphere of influence that could rival the likes of the U.S. and China.

However, some say the EU risks creating a free trade bloc that lacks teeth if it fixates too much on scoring points against the Trump administration.

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