Formal talks are scheduled later this summer on what would be the largest international trade agreement in history, bringing an infusion of billions of dollars in new revenue to the U.S. economy. The proposed pact between the U.S. and the European Union would open up new avenues of commerce, inject life into the economies of all parties and bring trade relations into the 21st Century by reducing tariffs and removing arcane and unnecessary regulatory restrictions.
The process will be prolonged and complicated, but finalization of a comprehensive free-trade arrangement is certainly a goal worthy of vigorous pursuit.
Already, the U.S. and members of the European Union engage in annual trade totaling more than $1 trillion. A new pact would increase that number by a sizeable amount — perhaps as much as $250 billion. At the recent G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, President Barack Obama and his European counterparts seemed to be of one voice on the subject, expressing certainty that such an agreement would carry no significant downside for any party.
Yet, there will be critics and skeptics, concerned over whether respective economies will be giving up too much in exchange for too little. France has made an initial objection on grounds that its heavily subsidized media and culture industries could be left unprotected. In the United States, trade unions worry almost reflexively that such agreements may lead to American workers being undercut by less expensive labor.
Most observers regard such objections as manageable. On the labor issue, unlike most emerging markets, Europe is hardly known as a place where labor is cheap. In the case of France, the parties have already expressed willingness to grant small exceptions to assuage concerns over specialized goods and services.
Overall, such an agreement is a gift horse that's hard to look in the mouth. Consumers in the U.S. would see the prices of European goods fall, while businesses here would see new markets open up for their products.
For example, U.S. pharmaceutical companies refrain from marketing products in Europe because governments there require another round of regulatory approval. A trade agreement could include a standardization of regulatory requirements, satisfying parties on both sides of the Atlantic.
An agreement also could increase marketplace competition. For example, foreign-owned airlines are not currently allowed to schedule domestic flights in the United States. A trade agreement could lift such restrictions, allowing a flight from London to Los Angeles to pick up passengers in New York. Travelers would have more options, and more competition could lead to lower fares.
On the political front, from the point of view of the Obama Administration, negotiating with foreign parties on a trade agreement may be easier than negotiating with the current Congress on domestic economic policy. With continuing gridlock on things such as tax reform and spending and deficit reductions, at least the White House can muster up some economic stimulus by widening the transatlantic pipeline.
International economists say there never has been a better time to pursue such an agreement. The existence of the European Union makes it possible to negotiate with several nations at one table. The explosion in communications technology is making trade easier, especially for the individual consumer.
There are no significant political or economic reasons to oppose these efforts, which essentially would unclog an existing free-market pipeline and allow commerce to flow more efficiently in both directions.