The European Union no longer expects to agree a free trade deal with the United States by the end of President Barack Obama's term, but most of its member states are keen on continuing the negotiations, officials said Friday.
"Completion of the negotiations ... by the end of this year is not realistic, so it's not realistic to reach final agreement by the end of President Obama's administration," Slovak Economy Minister Peter Ziga said after chairing talks by EU trade ministers in Bratislava.
"However, it makes sense to continue the talks and negotiations," EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom added.
More than 20 member states supported a continuation of the negotiations during the ministers' meeting, a source said on condition of anonymity - despite growing public opposition to the free trade deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Critics fear that it will benefit large corporations at the expense of consumers and local employees. Greenpeace activists climbed an 85-metre-high bridge pylon in Bratislava on Friday to hang a banner reading "No TTIP."
Top French politicians have spoken out against the agreement too, while Germany and Austria also count among the sceptics.
Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner called in Bratislava for TTIP to undergo a "relaunch" after the November US elections, complete with a new name.
"In our view, TTIP is now effectively suspended," Mitterlehner said. "It would be reasonable, since the issue has become so negative, to completely reset it, to do a relaunch after the US elections, with a new name, better transparency and also clearer objectives."
The EU and US have been negotiating TTIP for more than three years, with supporters saying it would create growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
But the EU has complained that the US is not making enough concessions in the negotiations.
"Europe cannot bow down to the Americans, we have to uphold our own standards," German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in Bratislava. "The substance of the negotiations has been bad."
Malmstrom acknowledged that the negotiations are "difficult."
The two sides will nevertheless hold another round of negotiations on October 3-7 in New York.
Malmstrom said she does not see it as "necessarily the last one" and that the EU is ready to hold more talks "in November, in December, in January if needed." Obama will leave office on January 20.
After that, the TTIP negotiations are likely to be paused for several months while the new administration settles in, Malmstrom said.
Whether the new US president is keen to proceed with the free trade deal remains to be seen, as well as whether EU member states may push to change the negotiating mandate for the talks.
"The current mandate - that is my personal view - does not offer enough guarantees that we would get good standards," Gabriel said.
For the EU, what will be in the agreement remains more important than getting it done quickly, Malmstrom noted.
"It needs to be a balanced agreement, which is beneficial to the EU," Ziga added. "In this instance that is just as important, more important in fact, than speed."
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