A transatlantic free trade agreement between the US and the EU, long dreamed of in some policy circles, is suddenly close to becoming a reality. In February, a high-level transatlantic working group published a recommendation that negotiations over the envisaged Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) should start. The European Commission, leaders of the European member states and president Barack Obama all embraced the proposal. All parties are now actively preparing for the first formal round of negotiations, which Obama and David Cameron announced at the recent G8 summit would start in July.

The TTIP’s renewed appeal in the present economic climate is easy to grasp. Free trade offers policymakers a way to boost growth without spending or cutting more from national budgets. By one estimate, the TTIP could add up to 1% to GDP in both the US and EU – helping to rescue Europe from economic turmoil and strengthening the fragile recovery in the US.

Traditional free trade agreements (FTAs) seek to eliminate trade tariffs, and the TTIP would target the remaining tariffs (3% on average) currently levied on trade between both blocs. But the biggest lure of the TTIP is its potential to reshape ‘non-tariff’ regulations and policies, to eliminate or at least ease, the need for businesses to comply with different sets of rules in each market. The EU has estimated that more regulatory convergence could generate hundreds of billions of dollars of new GDP growth, and a jump in exports of electronics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and financial services.

Accordingly, the TTIP will also seek to tackle a wide range of ‘non-tariff trade barriers’, including WTO-plus rules on sanitary and phytosanitary issues, in addition to rules on government procurement, intellectual property rights, competition policies, and environmental and labour requirements. Ideally, these rules could be fully synchronised, but even an expanded regime of ‘mutual recognition’ would offer major benefits.

Eroding these types of ‘non-traditional’ trade barrier promises to benefit a wide range of industries, boosting innovation and creating new commercial possibilities. Technology companies, for example, will innovate more freely if the TTIP succeeds in easing restrictions on data flows between the US and EU. Car companies will design faster, if they only need to meet one set of vehicle safety standards instead of two. Also, pharmaceutical companies will save billions on the costs of drug development if clinical trial rules are synchronised, so that drugs only need to be tested once and not, as under current rules, multiple times for each separate market.

Working towards these goals will prove challenging, but policymakers have an incentive to move quickly. The Obama administration will likely push to obtain ‘trade promotion authority’ from Congress this year, and aim to agree the TTIP before the 2016 US presidential election. Similarly, the European Commission and parliament are keen to reach a deal before the end of the current session in 2014. On 15 June, the president of the commission José Manuel Barroso announced that it had been granted a mandate to negotiate the agreement on behalf of the EU.

The existing groundwork for the TTIP will also enable negotiating teams to move fast – and likely faster than many businesses expect. To jump-start negotiations, policymakers will use the recently agreed bilateral EU- and US-Korea FTAs as starting templates. The ‘working group’ recommendations, formed over the last five years, will also help build momentum.

To avoid being caught off guard by the rapid pace of development, and to ensure the talks reflect the needs of business, industry groups have already begun establishing their positions on TTIP issues, and communicating those views to the negotiation teams. The TTIP is designed to aid free trade, so policymakers are keen to hear contributions from industry perspectives. At this early stage, businesses can also help set goals for the treaty, which will later become increasingly difficult as negotiations and positions mature.

The nature of the TTIP makes early and co-ordinated communication especially important. Negotiators will play a complex game of balancing the needs of domestic interest groups against international and transatlantic positions, and will need support from their business communities to achieve their goals. Industries on both sides of the Atlantic will need to speak with one voice, early and often, to achieve the TTIP’s ambitious goals of regulatory harmonisation and mutual recognition.

A successful TTIP represents an unprecedented opportunity, even beyond its core markets. The combined economies of the EU and US represent roughly 40% of the world’s GDP, and 47% of the world’s trade takes place between the two economies. The TTIP’s sheer scale means that it has the potential to set regulatory standards that will influence markets seeking to trade with the combined EU-US bloc. It could also help forge new unified EU-US negotiating positions in multilateral free trade talks (that is, at the WTO).

The TTIP promises to be the world’s next motor for free trade, innovation and growth. But it will no become that motor without hard work and involvement from businesses and other stakeholders.

Lisa Peets is a partner, Paul Adamson senior European policy adviser, and Ezra Steinhardt associate in the European public affairs and international trade groups at Covington & Burling