BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Ministers from 12 EU countries have written to the bloc's trade chief to back a planned trade accord with the United States, declaring clear support for negotiations that have divided opinion on both sides of the Atlantic.
Brussels and Washington have officially committed to sealing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) before U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office in January.
But France cast serious doubt on TTIP last month, with its trade minister calling for a suspension of talks. Days earlier, German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said TTIP had "de facto failed", though Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her backing. [nL8N1BB0ZA]
Ministers responsible for trade from Italy, Spain and Britain were among the 12 who signed the letter to EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom in support of the deal.
They said TTIP was an opportunity to shape modern trade rules and should be fully seized, according to the letter dated Sept. 14 and released by the Commission.
"We look forward to the continuation of the TTIP negotiations ...and to working closely with the Commission in the coming months," they said.
With national elections due next year in France and Germany, observers say politicians there are responding to public mistrust of a deal that critics say would lower environmental and food standards and allow foreign multinationals to challenge government policies.
The 12 ministers also expressed support for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) that the EU has already struck with Canada.
They said they looked forward to the signing of CETA in Brussels on Oct. 27, prior to full ratification by member states' parliaments.
"We must push for a trade policy that also stands up for workers' rights, the environment, people's health and our democratic space," they said, in a nod towards critics.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by John Stonestreet)