EU says to fast-track Australia, NZ trade talks

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EU says to fast-track Australia, NZ trade talks

Brussels (AFP) - The EU on Thursday said it would fast track free trade talks with Australia and New Zealand, bypassing the risky national ratification process that could yet torpedo a similar deal with Canada.

In a flagship speech on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that Europe was open for business, urging EU member states to swiftly authorise his teams to embark on trade talks with Canberra and Wellington.

The push is an ambitious effort by Brussels to conclude international trade deals and seize the opportunity left by the anti-globalisation leanings of the Trump administration in the US.

But Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem told reporters on Wednesday that the talks would not include a controversial provision known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, that has caused an uproar among anti-globalisation activists in Europe and the US.

The issue became even more pressing after the EU's highest in court in May said trade deals that included ISDS would require ratification by all the EU's national and regional parliaments, instead of fast-track approval by trade ministers and European Parliament.

Malmstroem, citing the court decision, said that the Australia and New Zealand deals would keep out ISDS and thereby offer Brussels "solid arguments" to have the trade deals not face votes in the bloc's more than 30 national and regional parliaments.

"Australia and New Zealand, in the mandate that we propose... They are EU (ratified) only," Malmstroem said at a news conference in Brussels.

Recent EU trade talks, including with the US and Canada, faced bitter opposition over the ISDS system with the signed EU-Canada deal set to enter into force next week without ISDS or national parliamentary approval.

The issue came to the forefront when the EU launched the now frozen talks with the US. Opponents of ISDS warned that the practice gave too much power to multinationals that can spend big sums on powerful lawyers to overrule a government's domestic policies and laws.

ISDS has attracted strong criticism when used, for instance, by powerful companies like Philip Morris to sue Australia over its cigarette packaging rules, Eli Lilly to sue Canada over its drug patent standards and France's Veolia to sue Egypt after it raised wages.

To address the problem, the EU has so far unsuccessfully attempted to persuade international partners to create a permanent tribunal staffed by public officials.