German Chancellor Angela Merkel told U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden on Friday that she saw "positive signs" in the push for talks on a free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht will travel to Washington on February 5 to put the finishing touches to a joint U.S.-EU report in the clearest sign yet that the two sides, who account for half the world's economic output, are ready to talk.
"I personally wish for progress in EU-U.S. free trade negotiations. There are positive signs," Merkel said in a short statement before her talks with Biden.
"I am grateful to President Barack Obama that he has also put this issue on the agenda," she said.
A trade deal between the world's two largest economies encompassing 800 million people would unleash billions of dollars in transatlantic business, advocates say.
It could also allow Europe and the United States to define the rules of global trade before China and India do.
The 27-nation European Union and the United States already account for nearly a third of world trade, but a banking and debt crisis in Europe and meagre American growth are pushing both sides to consider removing the final trade barriers.
Merkel said she would brief Biden on steps taken to overcome the euro zone sovereign debt crisis. Their discussions would also touch on the global economy, regulation of financial markets and security issues such as Afghanistan, she said.
Biden said he would explain to Merkel U.S. efforts to get its own public finances in order, adding "it is less of a (fiscal) crisis than people think".
Biden is due to attend an international security conference this weekend in Munich where he will hold talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the U.N. envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Syrian opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib.
Relations between Washington and Moscow have cooled significantly in recent years due to U.S. concerns over Russia's human rights record and disagreements over international hotspots such as Syria and Iran.
(Reporting by Hans-Edzard Busemann; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Louise Ireland)