Preparation of comprehensive trade negotiations between the EU and the US will dominate the agenda over the next six months if the EU-US High-Level Working Group (HLWG) recommends they be opened.
Presenting his country's priorities for the first half of 2013, Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore told the press that "given the close links between Ireland and the US, we are going to push forward with the idea of an EU-US free trade agreement". He noted that some areas, notably agriculture and public procurement, remain sensitive between the two economic giants. But the 2% rise in EU GDP that would follow conclusion of a comprehensive trade pact was a good enough reason to move forward.
The HLWG was due to publish its final report in December 2012. But according to several EU sources, it may only now come out in January because of changes in the Obama administration following the US presidential elections. While the omens are more than just good for the HLWG to recommend opening comprehensive trade negotiations, it is uncertain whether the parties will be ready to do so in the first half of the year.
What is clear, however, is that should the negotiations be launched under the Irish Presidency, this will not happen at the February European Council dedicated to trade and foreign affairs, but only later, at the June Trade Council in Luxembourg, Presidency sources told Europolitics. The issue will be discussed at the April informal Trade Council in Dublin, which will take into consideration member states' "political sensitivities". All appear to be in favour of the initiative, but the Commission's negotiating mandate will be carefully scrutinised especially by governments trying to protect their major national industries from product liberalisation - a not unusual reaction when the EU looks to open up markets bilaterally with a third country.