The European Union and the United States kicked off Monday their 12th round of talks on a free trade deal that they argue will boost their economies, but which continues to face criticism.
The start of the week-long negotiations in Brussels was marred by a Greenpeace protest which saw 30 activists from the environmental organization chain themselves to the building hosting the talks.
"This trade deal is not about trade. It's about the transfer of power from people to big business," Greenpeace campaigner Susan Jehoram Cohen said in a statement.
Critics of the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have long worried that the free trade agreement will water down consumer protection provisions and allow corporations to block undesirable regulation.
But proponents of the mammoth deal - which would create the world's largest free trade area, with 800 million people - say that it will significantly boost economic growth and jobs.
"Those who think that we are not dependent on a success with TTIP because of the currently well-running economy are completely wrong," said Anton Boerner of Germany's wholesale, foreign trade and services federation.
"Germany is currently doing well economically, but no country should rest on the status quo," US Trade Representative Michael Froman also warned in an interview with the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
TTIP has been criticized heavily in Germany for handing too much power to multinational corporations and eroding national sovereignty.
EU officials have nevertheless expressed hope that a deal can be struck with Washington this year, ideally before the US presidential election in November.
The two sides will this week explore how to achieve regulatory compatibility in the automotive, pharmaceutical, textile and other sectors, an EU source said on condition of anonymity.
They will also discuss for the first time a proposal by the EU to establish a special court which would resolve disputes between companies and national governments. The move is meant to assuage some of the concerns raised by TTIP opponents.
The "difficult aspects" of the proposal are, however, not expected to be resolved during this round of talks, the commission source said.