VIENNA Austria toned down its opposition to a free trade deal between the European Union and Canada on Friday, two days after social democrat Chancellor Christian Kern had vowed to start a 'conflict' over the agreement.
While the so-called CETA accord is all but sealed, the Austrian leader's opposition reflects concerns widely shared in other EU countries, particularly France and Germany, over a bigger trade deal with the United States, known as TTIP, which is still being negotiated.
Kern on Friday launched a campaign to inform his party's members about both CETA and TTIP, saying he would invite experts and decision-makers to join a nuanced and balanced debate.
Party members would have the option of voting for and against certain parts of the deals online and by telephone to help the government form its position, Kern said. He did not repeat the word 'conflict' which he had used on Wednesday.
Kern is worried the deals could allow companies to challenge government policies if they feel regulations put them at a disadvantage, and that they may harm social and environmental standards in Europe.
"The cleanest path would be to renegotiate," Kern said of CETA. "But I believe... that will be difficult. Apart from us almost nobody wants to completely reopen this cask."
He told reporters he would strive to give as much power as possible to national parliaments over investment disputes and environmental and social standards.
The European Commission hopes EU governments can approve CETA before the end of October. The European Parliament also needs to vote to allow it to enter force provisionally next year, and national and some regional parliaments would need to ratify it too.
There are widespread concerns in Austria that the deal being negotiated with the United States could compromise food safety standards. Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner has called for a stop to TTIP negotiations and a fresh start after U.S. presidential elections in November.
(Reporting By Shadia Nasralla, additional reporting by Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)