Miserable as the past few years have been for the sluggish global economy, there is a bright side. Hard times have forced political leaders to cast about for ideas to boost growth, and every now and then they come up with a good one.
Case in point: the push for a free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.
On Friday, the national leaders of the E.U.'s 27 member states expressed "support for a comprehensive trade agreement" with the United States, citing its potential to create jobs in a continent still struggling with high unemployment and debt.
To be sure, transatlantic trade is already massive; according to the Commerce Department, the United States exported $329 billion worth of goods to Europe in 2012, while importing $454 billion. The average tariff on this huge flow of goods larger than that between the United States and Canada, Mexico, China, or Japan is an already low 3 percent.
Still, zeroing out tariffs would boost U.S.-European economic output nearly $180 billion within five years, evenly divided between the two sides, according to a 2010 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report. The gains would be even larger if the United States and Europe can agree to remove non-tariff regulatory barriers to trade, such as Europe's aversion to U.S. agricultural products made from genetically modified organisms.
Indeed, once talks begin in earnest, agriculture is likely to be the worst sticking point. Industrial rules and regulations are relatively easier to harmonize. U.S. unions and environmentalists, which have objected to past trade agreements with Mexico and Colombia, would seem to have fewer reasons to oppose a deal with green, high-wage Europe.
Apart from the economic benefits, free trade would strengthen U.S.-European strategic ties. For all their current woes, and despite the rise of China, the United States and Europe still produce more than half of the global economic output. It is in their mutual interest to unify standards and regulations so as to jointly shape the flow of trade.
For its part, the Obama administration has fretted that negotiations could bog down if Europe fails to back its pro-trade words with action, as it is sometimes wont to do. But Friday's E.U. statement comes on top of unequivocal personal public support for free trade by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and now Europe is wondering when President Obama will send an equally strong signal, so that talks can commence in earnest.
Vice President Joe Biden recently declared in Munich that the "almost boundless" benefits of free trade are "within our reach." But many across the Atlantic expect Obama to put his own prestige on the line for free trade perhaps by declaring it a major second-term goal in his State of the Union address tonight. We hope so, too.