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EU, Germany play down reports of US trade talk failure

Associated Press Associated Press 29/08/2016 By JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG and LORNE COOK, Associated Press
FILE - In this June 29, 2015 file picture Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel briefs the media about the Greece crisis, at the chancellery in Berlin. Germany’s economy minister said Sunday Aug. 28, 2016 that free trade talks between the European Union and the United States have failed, citing lack of progress on any of the major chapters of the long-running negotiations. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber,file) © The Associated Press FILE - In this June 29, 2015 file picture Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel briefs the media about the Greece crisis, at the chancellery in Berlin. Germany’s economy minister said Sunday Aug. 28, 2016 that free trade talks between the European Union and the United States have failed, citing lack of progress on any of the major chapters of the long-running negotiations. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber,file)

BRUSSELS — Both the European Union's lead negotiator in trade talks with the United States and the spokesman for Germany's leader on Monday downplayed assertions that negotiations on the proposed landmark pact have collapsed.

German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is also Germany's vice chancellor, had said Sunday that "in my opinion, the negotiations with the United States have de facto failed, even though nobody is really admitting it."

Asked Monday by The Associated Press whether Gabriel's claims were true, chief EU negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero said: "No, no. Remember what Mark Twain said." The American writer once quipped that reports of his death were "greatly exaggerated."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said that while Europe and the United States still disagree over parts of the potential free trade deal, commonly known as TTIP, the talks aren't over yet. Steffen Seibert told reporters it is "right to continue negotiating," noting that often a breakthrough is only achieved "in the final round."

In Washington, Matt McAlvanah, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public Affairs, insisted that "negotiations are in fact making steady progress."

"The nature of trade negotiations is that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to, so it is not at all surprising that TTIP chapters have not been formally closed," McAlvanah said. He added that the U.S. and E.U. trade representatives are set to meet in mid-September for further negations.

Gabriel noted Sunday that in 14 rounds of talks on the massive trans-Atlantic pact the two sides haven't agreed on a single common item out of 27 chapters being discussed. His spokeswoman, Tanja Alemany, said her boss's comments were based on the lack of movement on the part of the U.S. and that "he came to the realistic assessment" that there won't be a deal this year.

Asked Monday to comment on Gabriel's remarks, Margaritis Schinas, chief spokesperson for the EU's executive body, the European Commission, told reporters that "although trade talks take time, the ball is rolling right now," and that the EU-U.S. negotiations have entered "a crucial stage."

"Provided the conditions are right, the Commission stands ready to close this deal by the end of the year," Schinas said. He cautioned, though, that the EU's executive is not willing to sacrifice Europeans' "safety, health, social and data protection standards or our cultural diversity" to reach an agreement with the United States.

Under discussion for three years, the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would create a U.S.-EU free trade zone encompassing half of the world economy. But it still faces significant opposition on both sides of the ocean.

France has said it rejects the plan as it now stands because it is too friendly to U.S. business. Influential American labor leader Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), has said the agreement, which aims at harmonizing safety, labor, manufacturing and other regulations across the world's two largest economies, appears aimed at lowering standards, and not improving them.

The June decision by British voters to leave the European Union at a date yet to be determined is another potential complication, though Schinas said Monday the EU's TTIP negotiators continue to deal with the Americans on behalf of all 28 member nations of the bloc.

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Frank Jordans in Berlin and Maria Danilova in Washington contributed to this report.

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