c.2014 New York Times News Service

c.2014 New York Times News Service

BRUSSELS — The top trade official for the European Union sought on Thursday to soothe opposition to a planned deal with the United States by imposing a 90-day period for the public to comment on protections for investors and companies.

Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner, said the consultation period, to be conducted online, was aimed at garnering support for a new approach to investment-protection rules that ensures European regulations are not undermined.

The talks on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership aimed at cutting tariffs and easing the burden of regulation on companies have been underway since last year. But they have progressed less rapidly than some officials had hoped, partly because of a clause on settling disputes between investors and any given member state.

“It’s clear that the general public is much more interested in this deal than in any other deal before,” De Gucht said. He said the outcry over matters including investor protection was prompted because “the two biggest economies in the world are speaking to each other.”

De Gucht acknowledged that similar clauses had “resulted in some very worrying examples of litigation against the state.” Philip Morris International, the tobacco company, for instance, has challenged Australia for requiring plain, olive-brown packaging for cigarettes as a breach of Australia’s bilateral investment deal with Hong Kong.

But De Gucht said Europe still needed to agree on ways to allow investors and corporations to enforce the terms of a trade deal in order to reach an accord with the U.S. A failure to include them would mean that the U.S. would “have to withdraw from their normal practice” and “we won’t have an agreement then anymore.”

One of the major sticking points to an agreement in Europe is a legal tool known as an investor-to-state dispute settlement. This approach is aimed at ensuring governments comply with obligations they have agreed to by allowing companies to bring a lawsuit directly against a country. EU officials say it is becoming an increasingly common component of trade and investment agreements around the world.

But labor unions and environmentalists say this tool could be used to weaken European standards in areas like environmental protection, food safety and publicly funded health care.

There is also skepticism among governments. Sigmar Gabriel, the German economy minister, told De Gucht in a letter dated March 26 that “special investment-protection provisions are not required in an agreement between the EU and the U.S.,” according to an official who had seen the letter.

The Europeans have promoted a trade pact with the U.S. as a relatively easy way of increasing growth and creating jobs in the wake of the prolonged financial and economic crises that began five years ago.