The EU and the US began talks yesterday that could lead to the biggest trade agreement in history, covering half of world economic output and 20 per cent of foreign direct investment.
It is vital the undertaking is not undermined by the row over revelations that the National Security Agency, America’s electronic surveillance operation, has been spying in Europe.
The negotiations face enough potential pitfalls already, including the long-running subsidy dispute between Boeing and Airbus and Europe’s resistance to genetically modified foods. Meanwhile internet giants such as Google have criticised what they see as Europe’s excessive data collection and privacy rules.
And this last issue has now been complicated further by the disclosures about the NSA following the leak by Edward Snowden. France had even threatened to delay the trade talks in protest. Perhaps recent reports in the French media that Paris has a vast electronic data-gathering operation of its own will help quiet the furore. A measure of indignation is understandable, but too many of the responses lacked even a nod to realpolitik.
The potential rewards of a transatlantic trade deal are huge. The talks – which both sides over-optimistically believe can be wrapped up in 18 months – seek to eliminate remaining barriers currently imposed by both the US and the EU, and to recognise each side’s industrial standards. An agreement could add $100bn to annual growth and lead to millions of new jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
The symbolic importance of the negotiations is on a par with its economic value. They come in the still-painful aftermath of the financial crisis which saw China’s economic rivalry to both Europe and America accelerate and helped put paid to the Doha round of world trade talks. An EU/US deal would send a clear signal that the cause of free trade, so often honoured in the breach, is still alive. To sacrifice such benefits to a largely hypocritical dispute over eavesdropping would be folly indeed.