The European Commission called on Friday for a free trade deal with the United States that would help the struggling European economy and also ensure the continent remained an important U.S. partner.

Noting how Europe had hardly figured in the U.S. presidential elections, EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht said the "transatlantic relationship is still by far the most important relationship in the world."

And "businesses, consumers and at least some of the politicians on both sides of the Atlantic know it is," de Gucht said, according to the text of a speech given in Dublin.

"Now it is time to act," he said, noting there was serious interest in an EU-U.S. free trade agreement.

An EU-U.S. FTA has been talked about for years and a working group was set up a year ago, but neither side has pressed actually to begin talks while they have pressed ahead with other countries to conclude deals.

Diplomats admit in private that it will take a lot of work to overcome decades of tariff and market access problems between the two.

Between them the EU and the United States account for about half of the global economy and a third of global trade flows, but "we cannot take this partnership for granted," de Gucht said.