US, EU trade officials pledge cooperation after EU warning

A day after his Senate confirmation, newly minted US Trade Representative Ron Kirk wasted little time in pledging close relations with the European Union when he met Thursday with EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton, dpa reported.

Yet the tension between Europe and the US was made clear already on Wednesday, when Ashton, in a private speech, urged the reluctant United States to help kick-start the stalled Doha world trade talks and warned against protectionism.

"I have seen doubts creeping in here and there about the US commitment to open markets," Ashton told the private think tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The concern is that President (Barack) Obama may not adhere to the principles of free trade that have made the US the economic superpower it is."

Considered a centrist on trade issues, Kirk has said the Obama administration would focus on enforcing existing trade deals rather than pushing through new ones during the current economic crisis.

In their meeting on Thursday, Kirk emphasized the importance of keeping harmony in the "good, strong" EU-US business relationships, which he called "one of the strongest" such ties the US has.

While saying governments "in these extraordinarily difficult times" had to do what they have to do to restore their economies, he added his hopes that actions will be done in a "thoughtful way ... that doesn't damage our ability to continue our business and trade in the future."

Ashton acknowledged the "sometimes difficult issues" in the US-EU relationship, but emphasized her and Kirk's commitment to working through the problems.

"We are in a moment of deep economic downturn and we are both committed to the philosophy that trade has an important role to play" in coming out of it, she said.

The "buy American" clause in last month's US economic stimulus legislation set off a round of alarms in Europe over creeping US protectionist trends.

At the same time, protectionist tensions have risen within Europe, for example, over the recent French quest for EU approval to use only French-made components in its car industry.

At their traditional December summit in Brussels, EU leaders vowed to "reject protectionism". But they also stressed that they had the right to save companies that have fallen victim to the financial crisis.

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