Talks on a landmark US-EU trade deal have been given the green light after EU trade ministers agreed on the bloc's negotiating mandate on Friday night (14 June).
The agreement, which was reached after more than 12 hours of talks in Luxembourg, paves the way for EU leaders and US President Barack Obama to officially launch the talks at next week's G8 summit in Northern Ireland.
As expected, the main stumbling block was the French government's insistence that it would veto agreement unless its subsidised film and television sector was excluded from the scope of the mandate. However, under a carefully phrased compromise, the cultural sector has been excluded from the initial mandate when EU officials open negotiations with their US counterparts, but could be put back in as talks progress.
Although paragraph 21 of the mandate makes clear that the audiovisual sector will not be in the mandate, a new paragraph has been included stating that the commission "may make recommendations to the council on possible additional negotiating directives on any issue, with the same procedures for adoption, including voting rules, as for this mandate."
"We are satisfied, but I don't want to call it a victory," said French trade minister Nicole Bricq to reporters following the meeting. She added that the exemption was "written clearly in black and white."
Earlier Bricq had stood her ground during the plenary session. France would "reject all mandates that fail to protect cultural services," she said.
Speaking at his own press conference following the meeting, trade commissioner Karel de Gucht, the EU's said "98 percent of the mandate was adopted without any further discussion and there was only discussion on the audiovisual sector."
"I can live with this", he said, in a reference to the compromise, while also insisting that "this is not a carve out".
"It will be discussed with the US....and if need be, we will come back to the council for a mandate on this specific issue," de Gucht added.
Although EU officials have been keen to ensure that no sectors are taken off the table, the US is expected to rule out financial services from the talks. Public procurement rules and standards relating to the pharmaceutical industry are also likely to be among the issues toughest to resolve.
The commission estimates that an EU-US trade deal going beyond conventional tariff barriers and harmonising standards on goods and services would be worth €100 billion per year, equivalent to an additional 0.5 percent of EU GDP. However, failure to go beyond tariffs would reduce the economic benefits to under €25 billion, according to the EU executive.
The average time frame for EU free trade agreements is three years, but de Gucht believes that a deal could be reached by end of his mandate in summer 2014. One EU diplomat told this website that the Commission was planning "a very swift process by the standard of FTAs (free trade agreements)"
Meanwhile, Irish minister John Bruton, who chaired the session, noted that "a lot of groundwork has been done to hope that rapid progress can be made. There is clearly an ambition on the US side to have a rapid conclusion
For his part, UK business secretary Vince Cable, whose Prime Minister David Cameron will chair next week's summit, said that the talks would "fulfil an aim of this year's G8."
"Achieving an agreement is in all our interests and would deliver a much needed boost to the economies of all involved. It's a win-win prospect on both sides of the Atlantic," said Cable.