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T-Tipped

Americans love Europe and free trade. But is the pending trade deal facing choppy waters?

As far as summits go, there may be no more important -- or more boring -- gathering in Washington this year. This week, U.S. and European Union negotiators are meeting in D.C. in the third round of talks aimed at creating a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), effectively a U.S.-EU free trade agreement. Broadening and deepening the transatlantic market has long had notional public support in the United States and currently enjoys overwhelming backing by American foreign policy elites. It also reflects a public commitment to Europe even as the Obama administration pivots toward Asia.

But such backing masks a deep vein of skepticism about the benefits of trade liberalization for average people. So while a free trade deal with Europe -- where wages, working conditions and environmental standards are comparable to those in the United States -- would appear to be an easier sell to the American public than a similar accord with poorer, less advanced economies (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently under discussion, as well), the devil may still be in the details.

Americans are favorably disposed toward Europe, despite jokes about the French and European anti-Americanism in the last decade. Some 79 percent of the public have a favorable view of Great Britain, 67 percent have a positive perception of Germany -- even 59 percent have a favorable opinion of France. By comparison, only 46 percent have a good view of India and just 33 percent have a favorable perception of China.

When it comes to partners, an even 50 percent of Americans now think Europe is the most important region for the United States, up from 37 percent in 2011, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Only 35 percent now say Asia is the most important area for the United States.

Roughly three-quarters (77 percent) of the American public say growing trade and business ties with other countries is a good thing for the United States. And nearly six-in-ten (58 percent) want to increase trade with Europe, according to a different Pew Research Center poll. A 2007 German Marshall Fund survey found that 64 percent of Americans support efforts to "deepen the economic ties between the EU and the United States by making transatlantic trade and investment easier."

There is even stronger support for TTIP among American foreign policy experts. A recent Pew Research Center survey done in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations found that 93 percent of CFR members surveyed say that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would be a good thing for the United States.

Oddly, these same foreign policy elites place far less stock in transatlantic ties than does the public. Just 12 percent cite Europe as an important future ally or partner for the United States, compared with 37 percent who say India and 34 percent who mention China.

Moreover, while the American public overall sees Europe -- not Asia -- as more important for the United States, a generational divide exists that does not favor Europe. More than half (58 percent) of the public 50 years of age and older cite Europe as a valuable partner, just 43 percent of those aged 18-49 see Europe as a helpful ally in the future.  

Still, TTIP should be a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast. Average Americans are skeptical of the benefits of trade deals. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of the public said free trade agreements lead to job losses. This included 58 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats. And a 45 percent plurality said that free trade deals lowered wages. Notably, Americans did not even buy economists' arguments that heightened trade lowers prices by increasing competition in the U.S. market. Roughly three-in-ten (31 percent) said trade agreements lowered prices, while the same number (31 percent) said they lead to higher prices.

So as free trade negotiations with Europe proceed, Americans seem predisposed toward trade liberalization, especially with the European Union. But concerns about the impact of trade on wages and jobs and a generational pivot toward Asia suggest that TTIP is not a slam dunk. That impinges on the negotiators in Washington -- if they don't come away with a deal that keeps both parties happy, the political window for a transatlantic agreement could eventually close.

VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/GettyImages

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