|EU presses for conclusion of free-trade deal with GCC|
|European Union trade chief Peter Mandelson called Saturday for talks in Brussels with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, so that a final free trade deal with the Gulf Arab bloc can be struck by year-end. "I believe that the technical level negotiations should take place without delay.
I would invite GCC technical experts to come to Brussels next month," Mandelson told reporters after a meeting in Abu Dhabi with GCC finance ministers.
He said the July negotiations would be a precursor to a ministerial-level meeting to be held after the summer that would make a final decision on a free-trade agreement (FTA), that has been under discussion for the last 15 years.
"This is to be done this year, that's why we need to make fast progress now building on the positive atmosphere [of this morning's meeting]," he added.
Mandelson said experts from both the EU and GCC, which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have been meeting in the UAE capital over the past few days to narrow differences on market access and rule of origin issues as well as those relating to direct investment, services and government procurement.
"In all these areas we do not have identical views and do understand we need to show flexibility to one another in order to conclude an agreement which both of us believe is important economically and politically," he said.
Mohammad Khalfan bin Kharbash, the UAE's minister of state for financial and industrial affairs, told reporters that an eventual deal with the EU "would have a profound impact on relations."
Last year EU countries exported nearly $64 billion)worth of goods and services to the GCC while imports from the oil-rich region stood at $43 billion, according to the GCC's chief negotiator Saudi Hamad al-Baziy.
The GCC and the EU signed a framework economic cooperation agreement in 1988 but have so far failed to agree on a free-trade deal.
The EU has long pressed the GCC, which last month celebrated its 25th anniversary, to implement among its members a customs union that was signed in 2003.
In principle, the GCC plans a common market in 2007 and a monetary union and a single currency by the start of 2010, but a slew of political and economic differences between member countries ruled by powerful and sometimes competing dynasties has gotten in the way.
Beirut,06 13 2006
The Daily Star