High-Risk, High-Reward: Will Obama Seek a Free-Trade Pact With Europe?

Any U.S.-EU negotiation would put these specific hotspots into a comprehensive framework. Trade experts see a phased, across-the-board reduction of remaining tariffs (averaging about 5-7 percent, although much higher for some products) as an achievable goal.

But critical parts of the framework would involve detailed sector-by-sector attempts to reduce regulatory differences and other preferences that impede trade and investment. For example, trade in goods has specific regulatory barriers in autos, chemicals, drugs, electronics, and electrical machinery. Trade in services is critical, accounting for approximately 75 percent of GDP in both the U.S. and EU. But, again, an agreement would have to harmonize or at least create greater convergence in parochial approaches relating, for example, to financial services, transportation, express mail delivery, telecommunications, wholesale and retail trade, and professional services. Opening public procurement to foreign tenders would mean addressing rules that, for political purposes, effectively bar such bidding. All these issues would entail hard, detailed slogging backed up by the political will from leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to get it done.

One of the first critical political decisions will be to define a number of issues that are doable. Another will be to define terms of negotiation that are broad enough to achieve both economic and foreign policy benefits. And another will be the end date of negotiations. Some talk about 2014 or 2015. But that would still leave the complex politics of approval by both houses of Congress in the U.S. and by the institutions of the EU that are directly responsive to the 27 member states such as the Council of Ministers and the EU Parliament.

President Obama has a critical decision ahead of him about whether to make one his few second-term priorities a risky decision to seek a U.S.-EU trade agreement. If successful, this decision could have the reward, in the recent words of Secretary of State Clinton, of shoring up "our global competitiveness for the next century, creating jobs and generating hundreds of billions of dollars for our economies" and addressing the core of our national security -- "the economic future on both sides of the Atlantic."

Maybe President Obama will start this high risk-high reward process, get a negotiated agreement, but not get Congressional approval before the 2016 election cycle. Then, ironically, it could be left to a newly elected President Clinton to fight a U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement through Congress in 2017 -- just as her husband had to fight NAFTA though Congress in 1994.

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Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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