EU governments are set to back the opening of trade talks with the US, despite France pledging to oppose the negotiations on the grounds that Donald Trump has rejected global efforts to fight climate change.
Capitals have agreed that mandates empowering the European Commission to open negotiations with Washington will be voted on by ministers on Monday without discussion, paving the way for the start of work on a deal that will largely focus on removing tariffs on industrial goods.
The move is a boost for EU efforts to avert a trade war with the US, with President Donald Trump and his administration ratcheting up pressure on Europe in recent days.
A longstanding transatlantic dispute over state support for Airbus and Boeing led the US this week to threaten punitive tariffs against $11bn of EU products, while Mr Trump is separately considering whether to impose additional duties on imports of cars.
The trade talks on industrial goods were agreed last year by Mr Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, as a way to boost commercial ties and ease tensions. They were part of a broader deal that included regulatory co-operation and assurances from Brussels of the EU’s intention to buy more US soyabeans.
Paris on Thursday abandoned attempts to delay the start of the talks until after European Parliament elections in May, but a French government official said that the country would nevertheless vote against the start of negotiations at Monday’s meeting.
The official said that France could not support the idea of a trade deal with a country that has pulled out of an international agreement to fight climate change that was brokered in Paris in 2015.
The scheduling of the vote on the mandate comes after intensive efforts by Brussels and Berlin to tackle French concerns about the negotiation plans, such as objections from Paris to including fisheries within the scope of the talks. France has also sought guarantees that older plans for a wide-ranging trade deal with the US, pursued by the EU during the Obama administration, are dead.
But this was not enough for Paris. The French official said: “It is a question of values. Europe must be exemplary and firm in its defence of the climate.”
The stance prompted bewilderment from EU diplomats. While Brussels has committed not to sign trade agreements with countries that refuse to sign up to the Paris climate deal, it has argued that the proposed US talks are different because their scope is narrow.
EU diplomats stressed that in any case the start of talks could be approved by a weighted majority of countries, meaning that Paris does not have a veto and that the negotiating mandates are almost sure to be adopted.
The trade talks are acutely sensitive for the French government given popular antipathy to opening up certain sectors to competition. Brussels has stressed that the scope of the planned negotiations is strictly limited, and has rejected US calls for further opening of the EU agricultural market.
The French official said that Paris would “continue the fight” including by trying to enlist the support of the European Parliament, which would need to approve any deal that emerges from the talks.
“It’s a major issue for the coming months and for the European elections,” the French official said.
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