By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union and the United States are set to commit at a summit in Brussels next week to ending their transatlantic trade disputes, and to call for progress on a new study into the origins of COVID-19, according to a draft communique.
The seven-page draft, seen by Reuters, aims to show concrete results of the “new dawn” hailed by EU leaders when U.S. President Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump in January.
The draft, which was discussed by EU ambassadors on Wednesday, commits to ending a long-running dispute over subsidies to aircraft makers before July 11, and to lifting steel tariffs imposed three years ago by December.
Despite pressure by U.S. steel industry groups to keep the “Section 232” national security tariffs imposed by Trump, the draft said: “We commit to work towards lifting before 1 December 2021 all additional/punitive tariffs on both sides linked to our steel and aluminum dispute.”
Biden will meet the European Union’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, and European Council President Charles Michel, who represents EU governments, and will also pledge to promote international cooperation to tackle global warming.
The EU and the United States are the world’s top trading powers, along with China, but Trump sought to sideline the EU.
After scotching a free-trade agreement with the EU, the Trump administration focused on shrinking a growing U.S. deficit in goods trade. Biden, however, sees the EU as an ally in promoting free trade, as well as fighting climate change and ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the Brussels summit, both sides will agree to cooperate on China policy and also call for a new study into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the draft said.
“We call for progress on a transparent, evidence-based and expert-led WHO-convened phase 2 study on the origins of COVID-19, that is free from interference,” the draft said.
The two prevailing theories are that the virus jumped from animals, possibly bats, to humans, or that it escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan. Members of a WHO team that visited China this year to investigate COVID-19’s origin said they were not given access to all data, fueling the debate.
However, EU diplomats made it clear that the EU’s support to Biden on the virus origins is mostly symbolic.
“We, the EU, are not going to launch our own probe,” one EU diplomat said. “We are not anti-China”.
“The EU doesn’t have intelligence services, and we are not going to try to do this origins search through our member states agencies,” a second EU diplomat said. “The Americans can still talk to European services in member states, but we are not going to get involved.”
Despite the caveats, if agreed the joint stance on China will be a boost for the Biden administration, which seeks friends to stand up to Beijing but has said it will not force any ally to choose sides.
In a concession to the EU, the draft makes no mention of Biden’s proposals for vaccine patent waivers to boost global production. Instead it pledges to reduce U.S. export restrictions and promote voluntary transfer of technologies.
But the task of fully inoculating the world is expected to be a long one. The text says that the United States and the EU “aspire to vaccinate at least two-thirds of the world’s population by the end of 2022”. In other words, as many as 2.5 billion people in the world may not get a shot before 2023.
EU states have until now tried to maintain a strategic balance that avoids alienating either China or the United States.
But China’s military expansion, its claims to sovereignty in most of the South China Sea, and the mass detentions of Muslim Uyghurs in northwestern China have shifted the mood in Brussels.
“We intend to closely consult and cooperate on the full range of issues in the framework of our respective similar multi-faceted approaches to China, which include elements of cooperation, competition, and systemic rivalry,” the draft said.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Angus MacSwan)