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EU leaders take on Trump's 'America First' as summit talks start

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European Union leaders pledged support for a multi-lateral approach to trade, signaling opposition to the protectionist stance floated by the new US administration.

[BRUSSELS] European Union leaders pledged support for a multi-lateral approach to trade, signaling opposition to the protectionist stance floated by the new US administration.

Faced with President Donald Trump's "America first" economic policy and a resurgent anti-globalisation mood in their own backyards, EU chiefs gathering in Brussels on Thursday are hoping to use their last full meeting before Dutch and French elections to make it clear that Europe demands and depends on free trade.

"Maybe now Europe is the beacon of free trade in the world at a time when there are more protectionist attitudes and policies elsewhere," Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, which currently holds the EU rotating presidency, said in a Bloomberg Television interview before the meeting.

There's a "huge market" in the world for free-trade deals, such as the one recently agreed between the 28-nation bloc and Canada, he said.

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The EU leaders will discuss their trade stance at the summit after negotiations between the US and the bloc have stalled over the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

During his first address to Congress last week, Mr Trump reiterated complaints that other countries charge "very high tariffs and taxes" and put US products at a disadvantage.

As leaders descended on the Belgian capital - almost certainly for the last time before British Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start negotiations on exiting the bloc - EU diplomats completed a draft of the summit's conclusions, warning against isolationist trade practices.

"Protectionist tendencies are reappearing," the leaders will say, according to the draft obtained by Bloomberg News.

"The EU remains strongly committed to a robust trade policy and an open and rules-based multilateral trading system, with a central role for the World Trade Organization."

By highlighting the role of the WTO, leaders are emphasising the need for fair as well as free trade, diplomats said.

The wording is also intended to send a signal to populist groups like Marine Le Pen's National Front in France that are running for election on an anti-free trade ticket. The draft could be revised by leaders during the summit.

"It's important for the European Union to take a united stand against unfair and protectionist practices whenever and wherever necessary," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the lower house of parliament in Berlin on Thursday.

"Though we see nationalist and protectionist tendencies on the advance in parts of the world, Europe must never retreat, wall itself off or withdraw."

The UK premier will attend the summit before leaving the bloc's 27 other leaders alone on Friday to discuss their plans for the future of the EU. That will culminate in a declaration at a special celebratory meeting in the Italian capital on March 25 to mark 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which founded the bloc.

Thursday's summit, during which leaders have to decide whether to re-elect EU President Donald Tusk for a second term of two and a half years, will also give governments the opportunity to reiterate their support for countries in the Western Balkans, which they say have come under pressure from concerted Russian destabilisation campaigns and propaganda.

While Mr Tusk is widely expected to be re-elected, his own country may not sign off on the decision. Poland is opposed to the reappointment of their former prime minister because its current government says he's part of a Brussels establishment that has unfairly accused the it of eroding democratic standards.

,Mr Tusk "is a very decent president, has done a good job in the past two-and-a-half years and should get another term," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in Brussels before the summit began.