President Obama and several European leaders kicked off the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland on Monday by launching negotiations on a Transatlantic partnership billed as the biggest trade deal in history.
U.S. and European officials are aiming to eliminate trade tariffs and collaborate on regulations across a broad range of industries to help bolster trade and investment across the Atlantic.
“I am very excited about the prospect for these negotiations,” President Obama said at the start of the talks. “I think they will be challenging. I think they will be difficult. All of us are going to have political sensitivities that we’re going to have to address.”
Obama was seated, with seven leaders from the European Union, at a small table in a book-lined room on a remote golf resort in County Fermanagh. Other participants were: British Prime Minister David Cameron; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta; French President Francois Hollande; Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny; European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso; and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
In brief remarks, Cameron said negotiating the fine points of the deal will be difficult, but said “this is a once-in-a-generation prize and we are determined to seize it.”
The leaders’ statements marked the unofficial beginning of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, the first stop on Obama’s three-day European visit that will include meetings with other world leaders and conclude with a speech in Berlin.
The trip comes as Europe is still wrestling with major concerns about its economy and just after Obama announced U.S. plans for deeper involvement in the civil conflict in Syria. He will explain his decision to provide small arms to the Syrian opposition at a working dinner of G-8 leaders Monday night. Britain and France have welcomed the development.
Just before Obama addressed reporters, he and Cameron visited school children at the Enniskillen Integrated Primary School, about a 15-minute drive from the resort where the G-8 leaders are staying. The school’s student body and teaching maintain a Protestant-Catholic balance with Protestants making up 40 percent of the students, Catholics comprising 40 percent and 20 percent not identifying as either.
Earlier Monday in remarks in Belfast, Obama, joined by first lady Michelle Obama, urged young people to reject being drawn into the violence that has divided Catholic Republicans and Protestants loyal to the United Kingdom for decades.
Instead, he said they should embrace the fragile peace brokered by the Good Friday agreement by former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, in 1998, even when it is tested, as it continues to be even throughout its 15th anniversary this year.
“The terms of peace may be negotiated by leaders, but the fate of peace is up to you,” he told the audience, which was largely made up of rowdy teenagers in school blazers and ties. “Whenever your peace is attacked, you will have to choose whether to respond with the same bravery you’ve summoned so far. You will have to choose whether to keep going – forward, not backward.”