THE European Union continues its aggressive push to sign free trade agreements (FTAs), with one deal signed in Asia, another two in Latin America ratified by Parliament and several top EU lawmakers proposing a cross-Atlantic free trade accord with the U.S.
Governments in the EU are relying on trade to give the bloc a critical economic boost. With the World Trade Organization's global talks stalled, the European Commission is approaching this strategy by concluding as many bilateral FTAs as possible.
On Dec. 16, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht and Singapore Trade & Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang concluded an FTA that "will facilitate the access of industrial and agricultural products to an important export market through greater recognition of EU standards," the European Commission's trade directorate said.
The EU will end all import tariffs on goods from Singapore within five years, while Singapore eliminates tariffs on EU goods right away. Kiang said ending the tariffs "will benefit Singapore exporters of ... processed food products."
"After our agreement with South Korea, sealing this deal with Singapore clearly puts the EU on the map in Asia, but we do not intend to stop here. I hope it will open the doors for FTAs with other countries in the (Association of South East Asian Nations) region," De Gucht said.
The EU's FTA with Korea has been in effect since July 2011. It is negotiating similar accords with Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Japan and Canada.
In late November, European trade ministers agreed to open trade talks with Japan, a decision Japanese officials welcomed.
De Gucht and Kiang hope to sign the final FTA next spring. It would then need to be approved by Singapore's legislature, EU member governments and the European Parliament. Approval from members of the European Parliament (MEPs) should not be a problem, if recent decisions are an indication.
Latin American deals
On Dec. 11, European legislators approved FTAs with six Central American countries -- Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama -- and a separate trade agreement with Peru and Colombia. The accords with Central America are expected to come into force in the second half of 2013, while the Peru-Colombia deal should be completed in the first quarter.
Before they approved the Latin American accords, MEPs passed a regulation providing a measure of protection for EU banana growers in the Canary Islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Costa Rica and Colombia are two of world's top banana exporters.
Parliament said fruit and shrimp producers would be the major beneficiaries from the FTA with Colombia and Peru. Central America traditionally exports coffee, bananas and pineapple to the EU.
Deal with U.S.?
One of the largest possible trade deals for the EU is also getting some traction these days.
On a visit to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 27, European Parliament president Martin Schulz promoted an FTA between the U.S. and the EU. Calling such a pact a "major boost for economic growth" of both economies, Schulz added that "the European Parliament supports a free trade zone between the U.S. and the EU to be set up by 2015."
He accepted that there is some reluctance to the idea.
"On both sides of the Atlantic, we have differing takes on food safety, consumer protection and environmental standards that are deeply rooted in our cultures. Still, if we succeed, it would be to the huge benefit for 800 million people," Schulz explained.
Speaking last week in Brussels, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore said his government supports an FTA with the U.S. Gilmore's government takes over the EU's six-month rotating presidency on Jan. 1.
Gilmore said a trade deal with the U.S. is a priority for Ireland, and "I know it is a priority for the U.S. as well." He has reportedly raised the idea with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.