Angela merkel Barack Obama.jpg
Photograph: EPA/MICHAEL KAPPELER

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped up their campaigns for a US-European Union trade deal by calling Sunday for action to accelerate talks to conclude the agreement.

"We need to get a move on," said Merkel, at a joint press conference in Hanover with Obama so as to bring to an end the three years of negotiations to complete the trade agreement, which has generated widespread criticism in Germany and Europe.

"It is indisputable that free trade has strengthened the US economy and also has brought enormous benefits to countries that engage in it," said Obama, who joined Merkel for the opening of the northern Germany city's annual Hanover Messe - the world's biggest industrial trade fair.

The United States, which last year replaced France as the main destination for German exports, is for the first time the fair's partner nation.

But underlining the opposition in Germany to the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), tens of thousands of people rallied in Hanover against the trade deal on Saturday with protesters claiming it will undermine workers' rights and weaken food safety standards.

But in his speech opening the fair, Obama hit back at critics, saying: "The time for TTIP is now."

TTIP would not lower standards but raise them in terms of consumer choice and environmental issues, Obama said at the fair's opening, which included a futuristic light-and-sound show accompanied by performing robots and modern dance routines.

"We love competition, but we also like to win," said Merkel, declaring her backing for TTIP with both leaders stressing how the trade deal would create jobs.

The 13th round of TTIP talks is due to take place in New York next week with both sides of the Atlantic hoping to conclude the talks under the Obama administration.

Obama and Merkel's comments on TTIP came after they held more than 90 minutes of talks on key global security and business issues, including Syria, Libya, the refugee crisis and efforts to contain Russia.

Throughout their press conference on Sunday, the US president repeatedly heaped praise on the chancellor describing her as "steady, consistent and trustworthy."

But in particular he was highly complimentary of Merkel's handling of the refugee crisis, which has unleashed tensions across Europe and Germany.

"She is on the right side of history," said Obama. She has followed "some tough politics ... that brings people together rather than dividing them," he said.

The US president's two-day stay in Hanover is his fifth visit to Germany and the last leg of a three-nation trip, which forms part of his farewell to world leaders during his final months in office.

Obama and Merkel expressed at Sunday's press conference their deep concern about the ceasefire in Syria following renewed fighting in the war-torn nation and the need for the international community to use all its power to drive the Syrian peace talks forward.

"It's a tragedy I live with everyday," Obama said about the five-year Syrian conflict.

But despite Merkel's support for creating safe zones for Syria, Obama expressed doubts about whether they could be implemented.

Obama's visit to Germany also formed part of the build up to July's summit of NATO leaders in the Polish capital, Warsaw, where Russia's more aggressive stance in world affairs is likely to be on the agenda.

Both Merkel and Obama called for the Minsk agreement to be fully implemented, with the chancellor noting that there was still no stable ceasefire in eastern Ukraine despite being called for under the accord.

The US leader also attended a special dinner on Sunday attended by business and political leaders, which Merkel hosted at Hanover's Herrenhausen castle, whose history and vast baroque gardens date back to the 17th century.

With just nine months to go before the end of his presidency, Obama also took time to reflect on his time in office.

"I love my job," he said. "It is an extraordinary privilege," adding that every morning he woke up with the firm conviction, "that everything I'm doing is important."

But Obama said that he also believed in change in high office.

"I think it's healthy for a big, diverse country like ours to have some turnover," he said. "To use a phrase from basketball, to have some fresh legs come in."

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