GCC plans free trade with European Union

Agence France Presse

Kuwait City, May 10:

Foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will visit Brussels next week to meet European Union (EU) officials in a new push for a long-stalled free trade accord, the GCC secretary general said today. The May 17 visit aims to “review political relations between the two blocs and speed up negotiations for signing a free trade accord,” Abdulrahman Attiya said, “We look forward to the meeting which is an important opportunity to accelerate the pace of negotiations towards signing the accord.” The two blocs signed a framework economic cooperation agreement in 1998 but have failed to strike a free trade pact. The Gulf Arab states met one of the EU requirements when they launched a customs union in January 2003 and they plan to establish a monetary union next year, a common market in 2007 and a single currency by the start of 2010.

Differences also exist between the two blocs over political issues such as human rights and weapons of mass destruction. But a Brussels visit on April 19 by Attiya and Kuwait’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Sabah, whose country holds the rotating GCC presidency, appears to have made some progress. “During the visit we found a European understanding and now there is a common desire to speed up negotiations and ink the deal. I am optimistic,” said Attiya who declined nonetheless to predict a date for a signing. Ahead of the visit, Attiya had blasted the EU for ‘procrastinating’ and admitted the oil-rich Gulf nations were frustrated by the long delays.

Previous rounds of trade talks focused on exempting exports of agricultural and industrial products, as well as fisheries from customs duties. They also included sensitive items such as aluminium, petrochemicals and oil products, in addition to intellectual property. The European Union is the GCC’s principal market and its second supplier after Japan. EU exports to the oil-rich Gulf monarchies were worth around $25 billion in 2001, with imports amounting to $22 billion, according to Brussels. The GCC groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.