European Union countries on Monday overruled France and gave the green light for Brussels to open trade talks with Washington as soon as possible and defuse trans-Atlantic tensions.

The EU's 28 member states had struggled for months to agree on a mandate to open the talks, with some fearing the delay would restart a trade war with US President Donald Trump.

But EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg approved a mandate to negotiate "an agreement limited to the elimination of tariffs for industrial goods only" and another accord designed to remove non-tariff barriers.

The ministers said the mandate would exclude agriculture products, which EU trade minister Cecilia Malmstrom said amounted to a "red line" for Europe. 

US officials have said farm products should be included.

"I will now get in contact with our American partners with a view to organising a date for the first round as soon as possible," Malmstrom told a press conference in Brussels.

"If we agree to start, I think it can go quite quickly," she added.

The trade commissioner underlined the determination of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to finish the talks before its five-year term ends on October 31.

French resistance

EU sources said France voted against the mandate and Belgium abstained during a meeting of EU ministers in Luxembourg.

Pursuing a limited trade deal is a key element of a truce negotiated in July that came close earlier this month to imploding after the US threatened $11 billion in fresh trade tariffs against Europe.

Paris voted against the mandate over worries about domestic blowback just months ahead of European elections, set for May 23 to 26. 

French President Emmanuel Macron has insisted the US first sign back up to the Paris climate accord after Trump dumped the pact in 2017, infuriating Macron.

But only a qualified majority of EU members was needed to support the talks, meaning France's "non" remained largely symbolic.

France's EU partners tried to win Macron over by agreeing to insist on environmental guarantees during the talks with Washington.

France nonetheless obtained a specific mention that TTIP, a far more ambitious transatlantic trade plan that never materialised, be officially called "obsolete". 

The TTIP deal stalled following widespread protests in Germany, France and Austria over fears it would undermine EU standards on food and health.

At France's demand, agricultural products are also off the table.

But a French aide said recently that Paris was still smarting over Trump's latest tariff threats and his refusal to reverse steep tariffs on European steel and aluminium.

Berlin strongly wants the limited deal in order to placate Trump and avoid US auto tariffs that would punish Germany's cherished exports.

'Win-win'

The mandate from the EU stipulates that the talks would end if the US pursued more levies against Europe, including on cars. 

The limited deal, which officials say can be negotiated quickly, concerns only industrial goods, excluding the automotive sector. Fishing is also included, but not agriculture, services or public procurement.

The US however insists its wants to discuss agriculture, while Europeans would like to include cars. Both sides will have to agree on the divergences before the start of talks.

At a meeting last July at the White House, Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledged no new tariffs following those on steel and aluminium.

That peace was in danger earlier this month after the US threatened to impose tariff counter-measures of up to $11.2 billion on a host of European products in response to subsidies received by aircraft maker Airbus.

But Malmstrom said: "We are convinced from the EU side that this agreement will be win-win."

It would increase EU exports to the US by 8 per cent and US exports to the bloc by 9 per cent.

EU-US trade stand-off: More than a year of tensions

Here are the key dates in the more than one-year trade standoff between the European Union and the United States:

Trump announces heavy taxes

On March 1, 2018 US President Donald Trump announces that he intends to impose tariffs of 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminium.

The EU responds by drawing up a hitlist of flagship American products it could tax in retaliation including Harley Davidson motorcycles, blue jeans, bourbon whiskey and peanut butter.

On March 22, the eve of the application of the measures, Trump suspends them until May 1 for several countries as well as the EU.

EU goes to WTO

On April 16 2018 the EU complains to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) over the tariffs.

The EU's trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom later calls for the bloc to be "permanently and unconditionally excluded from these measures". She says the EU is open to discussions.

On April 29 leaders of the EU's three largest economies - Britain, France and Germany - agree to be "ready to react, if necessary, with efficiency and speed" to new tariffs.

On May 1 the White House extends the temporary exemption by a month for the EU and also Canada and Mexico.

The EU says the decision prolongs trade uncertainties.

New disaccord

On May 8 Trump decides to pull the United States out of the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and world powers, threatening to sanction foreign companies trading with Tehran.

On May 18 the EU informs the WTO it is ready to punish American products if the US imposes customs duties on steel and aluminium.

On May 23 Washington says it is also planning tariffs on cars, rattling in particular Germany where cars are a keystone industry.

Tariffs implemented

On June 1 the US tariffs on steel and aluminium come into effect. Several countries, including the EU, complain to the WTO.

On June 22 EU retaliatory measures come into force.

Trump threatens 20 per cent customs duties on cars imported from the EU.

Several days later US motorcycle maker Harley Davidson says it is relocating part of its production to escape the EU's retaliatory tariffs.

US auto giant General Motors warns that it could slash jobs and hike prices due to the tariffs. In November the group announces thousands of job cuts.

On July 12 the European Commission downgrades its growth forecasts for the eurozone in 2018, citing trade tensions.

Truce?

On November 21 the WTO accepts to hear complaints from various countries and to rule on the trade dispute over the tariffs on steel and aluminium.

On January 18, 2019 the EU unveils plans to forge a trade deal with the US, while not proposing any reduction of tariffs in the sensitive agriculture sector.

On the 29 the EU approves the import of American soya to make biofuels, in a bid to bolster the fragile truce.

New tariffs threatened

On February 17 a report is submitted to the White House which paves the way for a US surtax on imported cars. A day later Brussels vows a "swift" response.

On April 8 Washington threatens to impose tariff counter measures of up to $11.2 billion on a host of European products in response to EU subsidies received by aircraft maker Airbus. 

Europe says it is ready to riposte.

Green light for talks

On April 15 the EU approves the opening of trade talks with the United States, despite French opposition, that are limited to industrial goods, with a "red line" on farm products. 

They should start "as soon as possible," Malmstrom says.

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