European trade ministers appear set to approve a free-trade deal between the EU and Canada following a day-long meeting in the Slovakian capital Bratislava.
But misgivings about a similar deal with the US have led French and Austrian ministers to call for it to be restarted.
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) would give European and Canadian businesses tariff-free access to each others' markets. The ministers in Bratislava said the two sides would put together a declaration spelling out the limits of the pact to dispel public concerns.
CETA signed soon?
The ministers themselves are expected now to convene an extraordinary meeting on October 18, allowing the deal to be signed during the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Brussels on October 27. It could enter force next year.
But as CETA came closer to approval, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Program (TTIP), a free-trade agreement with the US, suffered a new blow ahead of the meeting when Austrian Economy Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner urged his EU counterparts to end the talks.
In an interview for Friday's edition of German newspaper Die Welt, Mitterlehner said free trade talks should begin "under a new title and with different substantive headings," including greater transparency.
"TTIP has become a metaphor for the exuberant dealings of big corporations. That has a negative connotation. We hope for a good deal, but it has to be approached differently," he added.
Mitterlehner echoed comments by French Trade Minister Matthias Fekl last month that he would request a halt to TTIP negotiations after German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel declared that talks were "de facto dead."
Fekl said the United States had demanded too much and not compromised enough.
"A crazy machine is moving here, the negotiations are a failure, nobody believes that they will come to a successful conclusion," he told the German business daily Handelsblatt.
On its last gasp
TTIP would create the world's biggest free trade area with a market of 850 million consumers stretching from Hawaii to Helsinki.
But the deal, under negotiation since 2013, has become a hot potato as key elections approach in the United States, France and Germany. Washington and Brussels are officially committed to sealing the free trade deal before President Barack Obama leaves office in January.
There are deep-seated fears in Europe that the deal would undercut the 28-nation bloc's standards in key areas such as public health and welfare.
Business lobby groups across Europe, however, are eager for TTIP to come to a successful conclusion. In France, for example, a dozen business groups, including the Medef employers' association, issued an appeal on Thursday, calling for an extension of the talks.
They demanded talks to continue until they reached "ambitious and balanced results on all subjects."
"Simply giving up on this transatlantic project of historical significance appears to us as an extremely serious decision," they said, even as they deemed current US proposals as "unacceptable," notably regarding the access by European companies to American markets.
Canada and the US have had free trade between them since 1988 and were joined by Mexico - forming the North American Free Trade Area - in 1994. A free-trade agreement between the EU and Mexico took effect in 2000.
uhe,sgb/kd (Reuters, AFP, dpa)