More Hope Than Headway So Far in U.S.-Europe Trade Talks By 

To take one example, when announcing the trade talks last year, leaders said that the agreement would seek to “eliminate all tariffs” on trade in goods between the United States and the European Union, as a step toward creating the world’s biggest bilateral trade zone. But this week, American negotiators accused Europe of seeking to exclude beef, chicken and pork products from tariff cuts.

What’s more, Europe, at least, set out an ambitious timetable to get a deal done by 2015.. That may prove difficult.

The discussions are still at an early stage, of course. The talks this week in Brussels, led by L. Daniel Mullaney, the assistant trade representative of the United States, and by Karel De Gucht, the trade commissioner for the European Union, were only the fourth round. By contrast, talks for a grand trade pact with Asia-Pacific nations and the United States, announced in 2011, are already headed for their 22nd round.

But considering the ambitious objective — the creation of a tariff-free space in which, say, a drug approved in Europe would automatically be available for sale in the United States without separate clinical trials — the slow start suggests that the goal of wrapping up an agreement by next year is looking challenging.

Ignacio Garcia Bercero, the European Union’s chief negotiator, held a news conference on Friday with Mr. Mullaney, where both officials said they had made progress on the issues under discussion but stressed that it was still early going. They said that another round of talks would be held in Washington before the summer.

The two negotiators largely skirted questions about thorny topics that include trade in genetically modified foods, products common in the United States market but still mostly banned in Europe. Nor did they discuss a demand by Congress that hormone-treated beef, also banned in Europe, be part of the trade talks.

And there are questions about how much negotiators can deliver on whatever agreement they end up reaching. Mr. Obama’s own Democratic Party has become suspicious about trade agreements, and Congress has so far been resistant to a so-called fast track process that would allow him to negotiate an agreement and present it to Congress for an up-or-down vote. If European negotiators know that American lawmakers could seek to change any final agreement, they might have little enthusiasm for pressing ahead.

On the European side, civil society groups have criticized what they describe as the secrecy surrounding the talks and the apparent dominance of corporate interests in the discussions. They have been particularly incensed by a proposal for the insertion of a legal provision known as investor-state dispute settlement, which would give corporations the right to sue governments within the European Union for damages if an agreement was “breached” and it caused economic harm. It is something that businesses on both sides of the Atlantic have been pushing for. But European critics have assailed that provision as a Trojan horse for defeating their hard-won laws on consumer protection, labor and the environment, which in many cases are stronger than those in America.

In addition to Democrats’ reluctance to give Mr. Obama trade promotion authority, he said there had been a strong effort by labor and non-government organizations aimed at undermining the negotiations.

Critics from outside the corporate sector had a chance to express their views publicly on Wednesday, at an open forum sponsored by the European Commission.

Some American industrial farming practices, like raising calves, chickens and pigs in tightly confined conditions, are outlawed in Europe on humane grounds, she said. “There is legislation here that protects minimal standards for farm animals,” Ms. Rees said. “That is not the case in the United States, at least at the federal level.”

With European parliamentary elections in May, and congressional elections in the United States in November, political leaders on both sides are tentative at the moment, said Peter van Ham, who follows trans-Atlantic relations at Clingendael, a research institute in The Hague. “They were way more optimistic than they should have been when they got started,” he said.

For the moment, Mr. van Ham added, trade officials are probably unwilling to drop anything from their goals just to get a deal. But if there is no significant progress by the end of the year, ambitions will have to be scaled down to reach an agreement in 2015.

“But I don’t think they’ll be able to sell that as a success,” he said.

The investor-state dispute settlement could be the first big item to be dropped from the agenda. Nicole Bricq, the French foreign trade minister, said that her government opposed the inclusion of the provision. There have been reports this week that Germany, whose support would be essential for any agreement, had decided that it could not back the provision.

Mr. De Gucht has said that he will wait for the results of the public consultation before moving ahead. He also noted in an interview that he was confident that the concerns that had been raised so far could be worked out.

“It’s obvious that when you have trade negotiations you’ll have frictions,” Mr. De Gucht said, adding that there had been “substantial progress” in some areas.

And despite the unease among the public and the inevitable jostling among corporate special interests, there is broad-based business support on both sides of the Atlantic. The European and American auto industries — responsible for about 10 percent of trade between the two areas — both strongly support the initiative. They called in a joint statement this week for “regulatory convergence” in auto safety tests and standards, urging regulators in the United States and Europe to accept each other’s findings, potentially saving the carmakers tens of millions of dollars in redundant testing.

Executives in other industries — including food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and consumer goods — say similar regulatory cooperation could save tens of millions of dollars more, some of which they say could end up in shoppers’ pockets in the form of savings.

Correction: March 17, 2014
An earlier version of the article misstated details about the timetable for a trade deal. It was Europe that publicly set a timetable to complete a deal by 2015, not the United States. The earlier version also mischaracterized the relationship between Daniel Mullaney, the assistant trade representative for the United States, and Karel De Gucht, the trade commissioner for the European Union. They both led the latest round of trade talks, but they are not counterparts. An earlier version also described incorrectly the status of a fast-track process for approving trade deals. Congress has been reluctant to give the president that authority, but has not refused it.