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US-Euro trade deal would be 'cheapest stimulus package'

AFTER three decades of squabbling, the authorities in Brussels and Washington meet in Dublin this week to take the first concrete steps to hammer out a historic new trade deal.

While talk of trade deals can often induce yawns, the reality is that they have the power to transform economies or destroy protected sectors. They also flush out those who stand to lose and trigger bitter battles and deep divides.

Different regulations and tariffs have hindered the movement of goods between the two continents for decades; finally that looks set to change. European trade ministers as well as a senior White House economic adviser are meeting on Irish soil to discuss the progress of the EU-US Free Trade Agreement.

There have been previous attempts to reach agreement but these collapsed three decades ago under the weight of policies protecting the farming sector on both sides of the Atlantic. But now leaders of both continents have thrown their weight behind the idea; US President Barack Obama gave his country's commitment to achieving a deal during his annual State of the Union speech and EU head honchos Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy have also voiced their commitment.

They believe the benefits are obvious: trade between the world's two biggest economies would suddenly become cheaper and easier.

EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht calls it "the cheapest stimulus package you can imagine", saying it could result in a 1pc increase in European GDP, "meaning hundreds of thousands of jobs". He says the agreement will be "deep and comprehensive".

It should include the total removal of tariffs charged by customs agencies on goods moving between the two continents (which are already low, at 3 to 5pc). But more importantly, it should abolish legal differences that currently, among other things, force German carmaker Audi to build different versions of its vehicles for the US and European markets and require pharmaceutical companies to get approval for new drugs on both continents.

Supporters argue that similar US and EU policy approaches make this more achievable than a trade pact with a more culturally different state like China. EU companies will also be able to bid for US government contracts, and vice versa, and online privacy laws should be streamlined. There is no deadline but a deal is expected before the end of 2014.

The biggest challenge to the reaching of a deal for free and unrestricted trade between the two continents is still agriculture. Farming traditionally enjoys much more protection than other industries, since it was once such an important economic activity and still gets a lot of government attention.

Farming lobby groups will be working hard in Brussels and in Washington, with long-frustrated US farmers pushing for a sweeping eradication of these restrictions while the EU urges caution. Europe is much more restrictive on what farming products it accepts than America.

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It is much tighter on the use of genetically modified crops, widespread in the US, and the use of the animal feed additive ractopamine which produces leaner meat. American farmers are also permitted to use the bovine growth hormone rBST, developed by the global agricultural company Monsanto.

The drug increases milk production and meat yield but is also suspected of causing cancer in humans.

Ireland and its large beef industry will no doubt voice its concerns. Irish Farmers Association chief executive Henry Burns says that Irish and European negotiators "need to be extremely careful that our €5.2bn beef and livestock production is not placed in the firing line and sacrificed in these negotiations".

Mr Burns says any increase in beef imports into the EU will be very damaging for rural communities in Ireland and Western Europe that depend on livestock production for their livelihoods.

But Jobs Minister Richard Bruton, who is chair of the EU Trade Council this year, says a comprehensive agreement could provide an annual €800m to the economy and create 4,000 Irish jobs.

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