US negotiators travel to EU headquarters in Brussels Monday to jumpstart talks on the world's biggest-ever free trade deal, which after nearly two years remain bogged down by public opposition.
The future of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact, or TTIP, is in doubt in the face of bitter opposition by activists and mixed signals from key governments, including Europe's biggest economy Germany.
"This is the dirtiest trade deal in Europe's history," a new video posted by the anti-TTIP group Corporate Europe said.
Particularly controversial is a plan to let companies have legal disputes with governments heard by supra-national tribunals, which campaigners say would undermine national sovereignty and favour corporations.
The historic drive to create a market of 850 million people, linking the 28-nation European Union and the United States, began 20 months ago and on the eve of the eighth round of talks many believe the process is at a make-or-break stage.
The four days of talks starting Monday will be the first since the new European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker took office in November, with the outspoken Swede Cecilia Malmstroem charged to salvage the talks as the new trade commissioner.
"This is the first round after the fresh start. I am very curious how things have developed," said Luisa Santos of Business Europe, an influential pro-business and pro-TTIP lobby in Brussels.
- Historic pact -
The ambitious pact would be unique in history, analysts said.
It would not just slash the already low trade tariffs between the world's two top economies, but crucially it would also harmonise regulations to an unprecedented degree, affecting goods and services as far-ranging as Roquefort cheese and accounting.
"We are dealing mainly with regulation and more specifically, de-regulation," said Tom Jenkins, a senior advisor at ETUC, a European trade union group.
"People are quizzical to say the very least," he said.
Campaigners are convinced that powerful interests are selling the consumer short in secret negotiations.
But instead of setting aside negative opinion, as is often the case in the early rounds of trade talks, the EU decided to face the critics, embracing dialogue and transparency, at least to a degree.
"We are aware of the sensitivities, of all the concerns and criticisms," an EU source told AFP. "We are also aware of our own efforts towards transparency and we are also aware that more can be done."
The EU has even published texts that previously would have remained confidential, including the bloc's official negotiating mandate.
"Traditionally, trade deals were made in smoke-filled rooms, behind closed doors. TTIP is the first where there is a crack in the door," Jenkins said.
- 'Transatlantic renaissance' -
But the most contentious part of the deal may be the hardest to get rid of, given how keen the United States is to include rules for investor protection.
The Investor-State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, allows firms to sue national governments through tribunals instead of national courts if they feel that local laws -- such as health and safety regulations -- violate the trade deal and threaten their investments.
The influential German government has blown hot and cold on the clause despite greenlighting the EU's mandate to achieve it.
Opposition to ISDS became so intense that Malmstroem's predecessor Karel De Gucht, in order to move the talks forward, excluded it from the US-EU negotiations pending the outcome of a public consultation.
The EU received almost 150,000 replies -- an EU record -- and almost all were negative.
"The consultation clearly shows that there is a huge scepticism against the ISDS instrument", Malmstroem said.
Anti-TTIP protesters also handed in a petition signed by 1.1 million people.
To make matters worse, some in the EU question Washington's true commitment to the deal, fearing it might be more interested in Asia.
"We have to ensure there is strong political commitment from both sides," said Business Europe's Santos.
But US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland recently swiped away such talk, calling for a "transatlantic renaissance".