ABU DHABI (AFP) -European Union trade chief Peter Mandelson called for talks with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council toward a final free trade deal with the Gulf Arab bloc after 18 years of negotiations.
“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 meeting with GCC finance ministers in Abu Dhabi.
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 nearly two decades.
“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 said.
Mandelson said experts from the EU and GCC have been meeting in the UAE capital for 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.
The GCC groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“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.
“If we can’t make this agreement this year, I’ll be surprised and disappointed.”
Mohammed Khalfan bin Kharbash, the UAE state minister 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 50 billion euros (64 billion dollars) worth of goods and services to the GCC, while imports from the oil-rich region stood at 33.7 billion euros (43 billion dollars), according to GCC chief negotiator Saudi Hamad al-Baziy.
“We agreed to act with flexibility,” Baziy said, citing the GCC’s “worries” about measures that could complicate the entry of Arab products into European markets.
Baziy also said the EU wants the GCC to agree to allow European investors to retain “up to 100 percent” of businesses that they establish in the six Gulf monarchies, where foreign capital is always subject to restrictions.
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. However, a slew of political and economic differences among member countries ruled by powerful and sometimes competing dynasties has gotten in the way.
Over the past year Bahrain and Oman have signed FTAs on their own with the United States, and Washington is seeking similar deals with Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE.