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US-Europe trade talks are too slow, top EU lawmaker says

[PARIS] The European Union and the US will fail to reach a free-trade agreement before President Barack Obama leaves office in January without an acceleration of talks and greater American commitment, a leading EU lawmaker said.

"There's no speed in the negotiation," Bernd Lange, chairman of the European Parliament's international trade committee, said in an interview on Thursday in his office in Strasbourg, France.

"I can't really imagine, if there's not really a speeding-up process and a willingness by the US partners, that there will be an end result under the Obama administration."

The EU and US have spent two-and-a-half years working on an accord to expand the world's biggest economic relationship by eliminating tariffs on goods, enlarging services markets, opening public procurement and bolstering regulatory cooperation. Obama and European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said the planned Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is a policy priority.

The European Commission - the EU's executive arm - and the Office of the US Trade Representative completed their 11th negotiating round in October. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem and USTR Michael Froman pledged in December to intensify work on TTIP in 2016 "to help negotiations move forward rapidly." Any negotiated deal would need the support in Europe of the EU Parliament and the bloc's national governments.

Lange, a German Socialist member of the 28-nation Parliament, said EU-US differences persist over a range of thorny matters including the protection of European geographical indications, or GIs, for agricultural products.

"All the problematic, sensitive items - public procurement, GIs, labor rights, services and even the mutual recognition of standards - are not solved," he said.

While concerns in some European countries about legal protection for foreign investors in any trans-Atlantic accord have grabbed headlines and slowed progress on TTIP, Lange predicted that this matter wouldn't stand in the way of a final agreement.

Following claims that a planned TTIP provision on "Investor-State Dispute Settlement" would limit European governments' ability to regulate in the public interest, Malmstroem in September proposed an Investment Court System in which publicly appointed judges rather than arbitrators would hear cases and an appeal tribunal would be established.

"I'm totally convinced that this will not be a deal breaker," Lange said.