France threatened on Monday to delay the swift start of EU-U.S. trade talks if its red lines on culture and farm produce are not respected.
Brussels and Washington hope to start negotiations in June on a transatlantic free-trade agreement that would encompass almost half the world’s economy, and are seeking as broad a deal as possible to deliver strong economic growth.
The negotiating mandate proposed earlier this month by the European Commission, which has kept its contents secret, must be approved by EU governments before the talks can start.
“It is out of the question to work with a mandate that is hurriedly put together,” Trade Minister Nicole Bricq told a news conference. “We want a deal, but we shouldn’t rush into talks.”
In particular, a European Commission proposal to further open up European culture markets was “not acceptable,” said Bricq.
France’s support is crucial as a similar drive in the 1990s collapsed in the face of French resistance. While France is on board this time around, its enthusiasm is more muted than among free-trade advocates Britain and Germany.
“We want to exclude from the deal anything that is about culture… that’s non-negotiable,” Bricq said, referring to French laws that allow the government to restrict foreign radio and television programs and subsidies for French films.
Asked about the June target, Bricq said: “If the Commission agrees to take out its reference to culture, why not, but it’s a pre-requisite.”
Bricq said France would be as firm on its demand to exclude genetically modified products in food, and hormones in meat.
France has made protecting its film, television and music a priority in international trade talks for more than 20 years, insisting that culture should be treated differently to other industries.
The United States and the European Commission hope for a free-trade deal by the end of 2014 — a tight deadline in complex international trade talks that usually take years.
But Bricq warned that talks would be long and might last several years.
Bricq, who met French businesses on Monday to discuss the planned EU-US trade pact, said most of them backed launching the talks although the audiovisual sector asked to be exempted.
Protracted talks on an EU-Canada trade deal, for which an initial end-2011 timeline has slipped, show that it was important to agree a firm mandate before starting negotiations, she said. “For Canada, the mandate was very weak.”
The two sides disagree on issues related to farm exports, intellectual property and cultural diversity, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said this month.
(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Stephen Powell)
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