Britain's planned departure from the European Union will affect the balance of a mammoth free trade agreement the bloc is negotiating with the United States, Washington's chief negotiator said Friday, as both sides wrapped up their 14th round of talks.
Once finalized, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would create the world's largest free trade area, with around 800 million people.
But the deal, which has been plagued by criticism on both sides of the Atlantic, has been brought into question by Britain's referendum decision last month to leave the 28-member EU. The country is among the bloc's three largest economies and one of the top six globally.
"A withdrawal of the UK ... would affect the value of the EU market," chief US negotiator Dan Mullaney said in Brussels, noting that the country accounts for a quarter of US exports to Europe and is its largest market for services globally.
"In a negotiation such as this, clearly these type of numbers affects the balance of a potential deal and we are continuing to analyze the overall impact," Mullaney added, comparing it, by way of example, to excluding California from the trade agreement.
At the same time, he stressed that "the economic rationale for TTIP remains strong," noting that US President Barack Obama had reaffirmed his commitment to the deal last week, well after the British referendum.
TTIP will bring together the world's two largest economies, noted chief EU negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero, adding that the reasons for it are "as strong today as ever."
Negotiations on the trade deal have been ongoing for three years, with both sides aiming to reach the outlines of an agreement by the end of the year, before Obama leaves office and both France and Germany gear up for elections in 2017.
"After this year, with one political transition after another over the next few years, it could be quite a while before you picked up the negotiations again," Mullaney warned.
The outlines of the agreement are beginning to take shape, Garcia Bercero said, noting that proposals are now on the table for almost all of the 30-odd chapters the final deal will contain.
But Socialist EU lawmaker Bernd Lange said the last five days of talks in Brussels had delivered hardly any progress.
"Nothing will come of it like this," Lange said. "The Americans are still not moving towards the European ideas," he added, arguing that the list of unresolved issues on public procurement alone "stretches to the moon."
Both negotiators acknowledged that much work still remains to be done.
"The gap between the levels of ambition on tariffs and procurement remains a serious cause of concern," Garcia Bercero said, while his US counterpart noted that progress on trade in services provisions has been "noticeably and painfully slow."
Trade experts on both sides of the Atlantic will continue their talks over the coming months, with a view to agreeing a common text on most aspects of the deal by the end of the summer. Negotiators will then tackle the toughest of outstanding issues.