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EU trade talks expected, despite spying allegations

Report that US eavesdrops sours mood in Europe

BRUSSELS — The European Union confirmed Tuesday that free-trade negotiations with the United States would kick off as planned next week, despite widespread concerns about alleged US eavesdropping that targeted EU diplomats.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, which leads the negotiations on behalf of its 28 members, said the planned start of talks in Washington on Monday ‘‘should not be affected’’ by the surveillance scandal.

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However, it insisted that the trans-Atlantic atmosphere needed to clear up for the talks to be successful.

‘‘For such a comprehensive and ambitious negotiation to succeed, there needs to be confidence, transparency and clarity among the negotiating partners,’’ it said in a statement.

The talks are likely to take at least a few years.

Technical negotiations take up the first week, but political outrage over the eavesdropping allegations has raised questions about whether they would go ahead.

On Sunday, an apparent leak from former US intelligence systems analyst Edward Snowden, reported in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, allegedly showed that the National Security Agency bugged the European Union’s diplomatic offices in Washington and infiltrated its computer network.

The magazine said the NSA also listened in on the EU’s mission to the United Nations in New York and used its secure facilities at NATO headquarters in Brussels to dial into telephone maintenance systems, allowing it to intercept senior EU officials’ calls and Internet traffic.

France’s president, Francois Hollande, on Monday suggested the scandal could derail the free-trade negotiations. He insisted that the United States clarify the situation and end any possible eavesdropping immediately. There could be no negotiations unless Washington provided such guarantees, he said.

France had been reluctant to start the talks anyway. It had lobbied to keep the movie and television businesses out of the talks, to shield Europe’s audiovisual industry from Hollywood.

Yet EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said hinging the start of talks on political issues like surveillance would amount to the European Union’s shooting itself in the foot. The EU, he said, was entering the talks out of self-interest.

Any far-reaching trade deal could provide a big boost to growth and jobs by eliminating tariffs and other barriers that have long plagued economic relations. A free-trade pact would create a market with common standards and regulations across countries that together account for nearly half of the global economy.

A recent study commissioned by the European Union said a trade pact could boost EU output by $159 billion a year and the US economy’s by $127 billion.

Another estimate showed that eliminating tariffs alone would add $180 billion to US and EU gross domestic product in five years, while boosting exports on both sides by about 17 percent. That could add about 0.5 percent annually to GDP in the European Union and 1 percent in the United States.

For Europe, that could be crucial to help pay off high public debt and bring down record-high unemployment.

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