NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Reducing Europe's dependence on Russian gas is one of the aims of a free-trade accord discussed at today's EU-US summit in Brussels, President Barack Obama's first visit to the EU capital.
He met with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU President Herman Van Rompuy to discuss ways to strengthen transatlantic ties - economically, politically, and even militarily - as tensions remain high over Russia's annexation of Crimea.
"Events in Ukraine and elsewhere go to show that there are many unsettling uncertainties, and that's why the solid certainty of the transatlantic relationship is so crucial," Van Rompuy told journalists after the summit, which lasted just over an hour. "It is the bedrock to face these challenges, a bond of friendship tested by history, and that bond is shock-proof. Cooperation among our countries is unrivaled."
President Obama, who attended the summit after paying tribute to American World War I veterans in Flanders, north of Brussels, underscored that Europe and the 28-nation EU is the "cornerstone of America's engagement around the globe.""We are more secure and we are more prosperous, the world is safer, and more just," he said, "when Europe and America stand as one." The two sides recently launched talks on a free-trade treaty the EU says can boost its economy by 119 billion Euros ($164.2 billion) a year and that of the United States by 95 billion Euros a year. Besides slashing tariffs for all sectors, the aim is to tackle barriers at the customs border -- like differences in technical regulations, standards and approval procedures - to make it easier for companies big and small to export in either direction. Currently, when a car is approved as safe in the EU, it still has to go through a new approval procedure in the U.S. under similar safety standards. A free trade pact is expected to boost EU car exports to Europe by as much as 149%, boosted by the already strong two-way trade in parts and components. That could give an added boost to Germany's Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, already among the top-selling foreign brands in the U.S. As for other industrial sectors, the EU predicts a 12% rise in metal exports to the U.S. post-treaty, 9% in processed foods and in chemicals, 6% in other manufactured goods and 6% in transportation equipment unrelated to cars. On Wednesday, both sides gave reassurances that they won't push for a pact at the price of sacrificing environmental standards or consumer protections. "I have fought my entire political career and as president to strengthen consumer protections," Obama said. "I have no intention of signing legislation that would weaken those protections." Nor does the Commission's negotiating mandate on behalf of the EU's 28 member states allow for any kind of weakening of standards, said Commission President Barroso. Freer trade is also seen as a way to reduce Europe's dependence on natural gas from Russia, all the more urgent in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Obama said freer trade should make it easier for the U.S. to export liquefied natural gas to Europe, "something that's obviously relevant in today's geopolitical climate." Already, the U.S. has authorized the export of as much natural gas as Europe uses every day, he said. He also urged Europe to look for other sources of energy, cautioning that, "just as there's no easy, free simple way to defend ourselves, there's no perfect, free, ideal, cheap energy sources." At the same time, the EU and the US to stand shoulder to shoulder against Russia's actions in Ukraine, and waved the threat of additional sanctions if the situation escalates. "If Russia continues on its current course," Obama said, "the isolation will deepen. Sanctions will increase and there will be growing consequences for the Russian economy.....This reflects the enduring commitment to the goal that has brought Europe and the United States together for decades - a Europe that is whole and free and at peace." EU President Van Rompuy emphasized that sanctions should not be an end in itself, underscoring the need to stabilize the situation politically, economically and financially, "because that is the best answer." President Obama had a packed 24 hours in Brussels, meeting briefly with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and ending the day with an evening speech to students in central Brussels before jetting to Rome to meet with Pope Francis.
-- Written by Renee Cordes in Brussels.