America and Europe join hands to untangle transatlantic trade rules

Bush and Barroso summit to cap initiative to break down barriers
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The move, which was launched with a high-level meeting of officials in Brussels earlier this month, has been prompted by complaints from business about barriers to transatlantic commerce.

There are also concerns that if the two largest trading blocs in the developed world do not sort out their differences, they will lose out to rapidly developing economies such as China, India and Russia.

The move is being led by the Vice-President of the EC, Günter Verheugen, who is responsible for enterprise and industry, and the US Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez. However, the process is also involving the EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, and the UK's Secretary of State for Trade, Alan Johnson, as well as senior politicians from Austria and Finland.

At the meeting, which took place on 26 January and was hosted by Catherine Day, the Secretary General of the EC, a raft of concerns were discussed.

These ranged from regulations that did not mesh - particularly on chemicals and packaging - to standards that could be unified and problems with visas and work permits.

A senior source at the EC said that many of these issues could be resolved by bringing regulatory bodies together, without any need for legislation.

"There is much that can be done at the level of officials without there being any need for political input at the moment," said the source.

Another senior official pointed out that the big impediment to transatlantic trade was non-tariff barriers - practical obstacles that have no set financial value. "One big focus will be the standardisation of standards," he said.

One of the most common issues mentioned by business concerns visas and work permits. Although there is free movement within the EU, and it is relatively easy for Americans to obtain work permits in Europe, Europeans are finding it harder to work in the US. This is because of supposedly anti-terrorist measures brought in by the Department of Homeland Security.

These have been criticised widely, including in the US. Intel chairman Craig Barrett said last week that America was losing out because it was closing its doors to talent from around the world.

Another meeting of senior officials is being arranged in Washington, which will probably take place next month. Depending on the progress made at these talks, there are plans to have a summit, possibly in Vienna.