US and EU negotiators began their latest round of talks Monday seeking to push through the world's biggest-ever free trade deal, which after nearly two years remain bogged down by public opposition.
The eighth set of talks on the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact, or TTIP, take place in the face of attacks by activists and mixed signals from key governments, including Europe's biggest economy Germany.
The meeting is the first since the new European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker took office in November, with the outspoken Swede Cecilia Malmstroem charged with salvaging the talks as the new trade commissioner.
The EU's chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero and his US counterpart Dan Mullaney shook hands for cameras on Monday without making comment, before beginning discussions that end on Friday.
"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.
As planned, TTIP would not just slash the already low trade tariffs between the world's two top economies, but would also harmonise regulations to an unprecedented degree, affecting goods and services as far-ranging as Roquefort cheese and accounting.
But campaigners are convinced that powerful interests are selling the consumer short in the secret negotiations.
The most contentious part of the deal will not be on the negotiating table in this round of talks.
The Investor-State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, allows firms to sue national governments through arbitral 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.
In response to critics, the EU has launched a major transparency push, publishing 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," said Tom Jenkins, a senior advisor at the European Trade Union Confederation.