Textile and clothing industry groups on both sides of the Atlantic have welcomed the news that the EU and the US are to commence talks on the biggest bilateral trade deal ever negotiated.

European Union (EU) clothing and textile industry association Euratex has hailed the launch of talks between the United States and the EU to forge what the European Commission calls the "biggest bilateral trade deal ever," saying EU exporters will benefit.

A deal, once sealed, could eliminate American duties as high as 19%, says Euratex.

The EU's textile and clothing industry already has a positive trade balance with the US. "Tariffs are still high in the US" for textile and clothing, Euratex president Alberto Paccanelli has stressed.

And it is worse when it comes to exporting products containing wool where the "duties are generally higher, sometimes above 19%," Luisa Santos, head of international trade at Euratex, told just-style.

So "we expect to have duty-free access from the entry into force of the agreement and we are willing to give the same benefit to the US," Ms Santos noted. With exports being highly price-sensitive, an elimination of the duties could "help substantially our competitiveness in the market."

The EU's textile and clothing exports to the US have been steadily increasing and are already substantial. In 2009, these exports stood at EUR2.8bn (US$3.7bn) and in 2010, they rose to EUR3.3bn, while they reached EUR3.7bn in 2011.

In negotiations, the EU would have a "forward looking approach" in terms of tariff and duty-free access from day one, according to Santos.

US sees opportunity
There was also optimism from American importers and retailers. Julie Hughes, president of the United States Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel (USA-ITA), said a free trade agreement "presents a terrific opportunity" to remove duties and resolve regulatory issues that hold back trade between the US and the EU.

"We are especially enthusiastic about the launch of the US-EU trade negotiations," Hughes told just-style adding: "Many people don't realise that the EU is actually one of the top destinations for US exports of yarns, fabrics, and apparel" or that US brands import yarns and fabrics from the EU to manufacture 'Made in the USA' garments.

However some US groups are concerned because of different tax and regulatory regimes between the two regions.

"We are eagerly watching how the US government is going to engage with the EU," said David Trumbull, vice president of the USA's National Textile Association.

He is concerned about the fact that the US does not have the comprehensive sales tax systems in place in Europe, which do not apply for exports. Meanwhile, American producers can pay more through income tax or corporate tax: so US exporters could be placed at a comparative tax disadvantage, also having to pay VAT in Europe.

He said: "We do not want to get subjected to double taxation when exporting to the EU while EU producers get away with paying import duties to the US."

Other issues to discuss
Meanwhile, back in Europe, the European Commission is compiling an impact study on "which sector benefits how", said Helene Banner, EU trade spokesperson. The study will be released in two months.

An earlier report from the EU-US High-Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth (HLWG) had, noted Banner, recommended "eliminating all duties on bilateral trade, with a substantial elimination of tariffs upon entry into force, and a phasing out of all but the most sensitive tariffs in a short time frame."

But there are host of other issues to discuss, notably, labelling, safety and consumer protection, during clothing and textile talks.

One issue is that "the information that has to be included on the label is more extensive in the US than in the EU," Ms Santos stressed. For instance, the US has mandatory origin labelling - which is currently only a (recent) proposal in the EU.

And when it comes to safety and consumer protection, the US has its own legislation that varies from the EU. - for example requirements in terms of testing.

Santos said it is important to focus on "harmonisation to reduce costs for companies, especially small-and-medium enterprises in both sides of the Atlantic".

Brussels and Washington aim to conclude the talks "ideally in about two years from now," said EU trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht: "But more paramount than speed is achieving an ambitious deal."

The European Commission will present draft negotiating directives to the EU Council of Ministers for approval in March and similar proposals are being sent to the US Congress. "Both sides aim to advance fast once negotiations are started," added Banner.