The European Union and the United States pledged Friday to accelerate their work on a free trade agreement, with a view to concluding a deal before the end of the year

"We are ready to seek to conclude negotiations in 2016, provided that the substance is right. So we must ensure that we pick up the pace," said chief EU negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero, during the 12th round of negotiations with his US counterpart Dan Mullaney.

Critics of the 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 deal - which would create the world's largest free trade area, comprising 800 million people - say that it will significantly boost economic growth and jobs.

Since negotiations started in 2013, expert teams from Brussels and Washington have sought to find common ground on issues ranging from food, pharmaceutical and car safety standards to means of settling disputes between investors and governments.

"We are well into the nitty-gritty of negotiating this agreement," Mullaney said Friday.

But both sides acknowledged that much remains to be done. The two lead negotiators said that they hope to have whittled down the areas of disagreement to the most sensitive issues by mid-year.

With US presidential elections in November, there are fears that a change of leadership in the White House could stall progress on TTIP.

Two further negotiating rounds will take place in the coming months, before activities wind down for the summer break, Garcia Bercero said, adding that this week's talks will extend beyond the customary five days.

Next week, the two sides are due to exchange proposals on the sensitive issue of public procurement. The aim is to open up the market so companies on both sides of the Atlantic can bid for government contracts - a field that is restricted in many US states.

The current round of talks also touched on an EU proposal 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, but it is unclear whether Washington will accept the proposal.

"We do understand many of the concerns," Mullaney said, adding that the negotiators were working through the proposed text "with those objectives in mind."

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