THE first round of negotiations on a landmark trade deal between the EU and the US could begin this summer after a successful meeting of European trade ministers yesterday.
EU trade ministers moved closer to agreeing a mandate for negotiations with the US at an informal meeting in Dublin.
The progress means the EU remains on course to sign off on its platform for talks on June 14. That would open the way for formal talks to begin a month later.
In a statement after the Dublin meetings had concluded, Trade Minister Richard Bruton, who chaired the council of trade ministers' meeting as part of the Irish presidency, said the EU was "closer to reaching a common position" required to start negotiations.
"We had a very broad-based discussion on trade agreement, which would go well beyond agreements of the past. It would be a dynamic and living agreement rather than just having it agreed and then leaving it at that.
"There is a great appetite to complete the mandate by June 14, when a formal decision at council will be made," he added.
Agreeing a mandate for negotiations would open the way to talks beginning as soon as July, according to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who later told the US embassy that the talks were a "key focus" of the Irish presidency of the EU.
Significantly, Michael Froman, who is US President Barack Obama's national security adviser for economic affairs and the "go-to" person for the trade talks, attended the ministers' meeting.
Since Mr Obama highlighted willingness for an agreement earlier this year, the market has been looking forward to negotiations to begin.
Studies indicate that EU exports to the US would increase by 28pc, or €187bn, each year as a result of the increased trade from a new EU-US Trade Agreement.
A deal between the two economic blocs would also increase global trade, producing an additional 6pc growth in exports for the EU. Altogether, the total benefit to the EU is forecast at €220bn. In Ireland, that would translate to about €800m more in GDP and 4,000 jobs.
EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht said a trade agreement was necessary despite the already close ties between the two regions.
"The door is only half-open. There are still tariffs on both sides that are almost too effective, and [hamper trade]," he said.
Any talks will take time, however. Many countries in Europe and the US have concerns about an agreement.
France, in particular, is concerned about protecting regional variations, such as types of cheese.
The US has previously indicated absolute opposition to protections for "regionality". "We should be under no illusions that finding a deal will be easy. We will have to allay fears about co-operating, it would be unrealistic to expect otherwise," said Mr De Gucht.
Closer to home the farming industry has made plain its concerns about the trade agreement and the prospect of cheaply produced US beef flooding the protected EU market. However, Mr Bruton said the trade talks represent a chance for Irish beef to re-enter the US market for the first time since the BSE crisis in the early 90s.
"There are opportunities as well as threats in any trade talks," he said.