REUTERS - Trade talks between the European Union and the United States should be halted and a new set started, France's trade minister said on Tuesday, adding his voice to calls from within Germany for an end to the negotiations.
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Three years of talks on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have failed to resolve multiple differences, including over food and environmental safety. Critics say the pact would hand too much power to big multinationals at the expense of consumers and workers.
But despite a weekend comment by German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel that the talks had "de facto failed", which found an echo on Tuesday by French Trade Minister Matthias Fekl, the European Commission says negotiations are making steady progress and there is an outline of a future agreement.
Fekl said he would request a halt to TTIP talks at next month's meeting of EU trade ministers in Bratislava.
"There should be an absolute clear end so that we can restart them on a good basis," Fekl said on RMC Radio, calling the process "opaque" and unbalanced.
Paris threatened to stall further negotiations as long ago as April. But with national elections due in both France and Germany in 2017, experts were saying before the summer that this year - before the end of U.S. President Barack Obama's mandate in January - may be the best opportunity to strike a deal.
French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday appeared to endorse Fekl's position, telling ambassadors that he could not back a deal by that deadline.
"The negotiations are bogged down, positions have not been respected, it's clearly unbalanced," he said.
Italy's trade and industry minister meanwhile said it was essential for Italian exporters that the negotiations bore fruit.
"TTIP will be sealed. It is inevitable," the minister, Carlo Calenda, said in an interview with Corriere della Sera newspaper published on Tuesday. But he too said it would be difficult to reach a deal before Obama left office at the end of the year.
Germany's Gabriel is the chairman of the Social Democrats who share power with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
But Merkel backs the talks and her spokesman insisted on Monday that they should continue.
The official line from both the European Commission, the bloc's executive, and the United States, is also that the talks are progressing.
"Although trade talks take time, the ball is rolling right now and the Commission is making steady progress in the ongoing TTIP negotiations," Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news conference in Brussels on Monday.
U.S Trade Representative Michael Froman told German magazine Der Spiegel the negotiations "are in fact making steady progress".
Supporters of the talks say the TTIP could deliver more than $100 billion worth of economic gains on both sides of the Atlantic, but critics say the pact would hand too much power to big multinationals at the expense of consumers and workers.
Britain's June vote to leave the EU has further clouded the picture, even though the Commission has a mandate to finalize TTIP talks on behalf of all EU 28 members.