WASHINGTON, D.C. — A U.S.-EU free trade agreement would jumpstart global economic growth and could be signed within two years, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington Monday. The Irish prime minister spoke to the business lobby on trans-Atlantic trade on the eve of a White House visit.
“I rang President Obama after his re-election to talk about this, and tomorrow I’ll speak to him about it when I visit the White House,” Kenny told business executives. A treaty could be negotiated within 18 months to two years, he said, with the mandate or framework for negotiations ready as early as June.
The Republic of Ireland currently holds the presidency of the European Union, which lends a new dimension to the Irish prime minister’s annual St. Patrick’s Day visit to Washington. In addition to promoting Irish interests in meetings with Obama and congressional leaders, Kenny is advancing a broad European trade agenda.
“It's great that I can go to the White House and meet with President Obama as president to president, and both Irishmen at that," Kenny said. Obama’s great-great-great grandfather Falmouth Kearney hailed from Moneygall, Ireland, a village the president visited in 2011, 161 years after Kearney emigrated.
Obama said the U.S. would launch talks with the EU during his State of the Union address in February. “This is a necessary part of the future for Europe,” said Kenny. “I think the essence of the treaty will be to allow for far greater capacity for free trade between North America and the European Union,” he told business leaders, while noting there will be obstacles to overcome.
Most of those obstacles are regulatory non-tariff barriers to trade, as well as opposition from sectors such as agriculture. “Nobody should be under any impression that we’re not going to be resolving agricultural issues,” Michael Froman, the U.S. Trade Representative’s deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, recently told reporters.
U.S. beef exporters, for example, would like greater access to European markets, and that’s a concern to farmers in European countries, including Ireland, where the Irish Farmers Association already is warning of substantial damage to the livestock sector from a free trade agreement between the EU and Canada.
The European Commission last week agreed to a draft mandate for the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement, the basis for free-trade talks between the U.S. and the 27-nation EU. The draft mandate must be approved by the Council for Member States before negotiations may start.
“The European Commission has given us a mandate,” Kenny said. “There’s a process that needs to be dealt with on this side of the Atlantic, and I expect that will happen very quickly.” He said he hopes the groundwork for negotiations can be completed before the end of Ireland’s six-month EU presidency in June.
An “ambitious and comprehensive” free trade agreement could mean annual economic benefits of about $154 billion for the EU and $123 billion for the U.S., according to a report the EC released last week. Total exports would increase 6 percent in the EU and 8 percent in the U.S. as a result, the EC report said.
By some estimates, a free trade pact could boost annual gross domestic product by 0.7 percent in the U.S. and 0.5 percent in the EU. An estimated $2.7 billion in goods and services move between Europe and the U.S. each day.