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US-EU free-trade pact gains favor

A deal’s scale could rival that of NAFTA

The Maersk Missouri in New York. US and Europe firms and business groups are pushing for a pact.

Joshua Bright/New York Times/File

The Maersk Missouri in New York. US and Europe firms and business groups are pushing for a pact.

FRANKFURT — A free-trade agreement between the United States and Europe, elusive for more than a decade but with a potentially huge economic effect, is gaining momentum and may finally be attainable, business and political leaders say.

Arduous negotiations still lie ahead, but if technical hurdles can be overcome, supporters of a pact argue, it could rival the North American Free Trade Agreement in scale and be a cheap way to encourage growth between the European Union and the United States, which are already each other’s biggest overseas trading partners.

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“There is now, for the first time in years, a serious drive towards an EU-US free-trade agreement,’’ Karel De Gucht, the European trade commissioner, said in Dublin this month.

Within days, if not hours, of President Obama’s reelection, numerous European leaders, including Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and David Cameron, the British prime minister, were urging Obama to push for a free-trade agreement. The Europeans hope that eliminating friction in US-European trade would provide some badly needed economic growth.

Corporations and business groups on both sides of the Atlantic are also pushing hard for a pact. Tariffs on goods traded between the United States and the EU are already low, averaging less than 3 percent. But companies that do substantial amounts of trans-Atlantic business say that even a relatively small increase in the volume of trade could deliver major economic benefits.

While China has dominated the political debate in the United States, US trade with Europe is much larger, totaling $485 billion in goods in the first nine months of this year, compared with $390 billion in trade with China.

‘‘The reason we care about this is because these base line numbers are so huge,’’ said Karan Bhatia, a former deputy US trade representative who is now vice president for global government affairs at General Electric Co. in Washington.

‘‘This could be the biggest, most valuable free-trade agreement by far, even if it produces only a marginal increase in trade.’’

Noting that a free-trade agreement would not cost taxpayers any money, Bhatia said, ‘‘This is the great, untapped stimulus.’’

Perhaps more important for US companies, Europe buys much more from the United States than China does. Exports of goods to Europe through September totaled $200 billion, according to US government data, while China imported $79 billion worth of US goods.

“The economic music is between America and Europe,’’ said Fred ­Irwin, president of the US Chamber of Commerce in Germany. The organization has been among groups lobbying energetically for a comprehensive agreement to replace the potpourri of existing tariffs and regulations and to roll back national rules in Europe that may impede trade.

The chamber estimates that an agreement that eliminates tariffs and other barriers between the United States and Europe could add 1.5 percentage points to annual growth on both sides of the Atlantic. While that may be optimistic, economists agree that trade increases when barriers fall.

Supporters of an agreement hope that Obama will visit Europe early in 2013 and that he would agree while he is there on a framework for negotiations that could lead to a detailed agreement within several years. They argue that a pact would offer Obama an opportunity to improve his relations with the business community.

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