Reuters | Wed 2 Jul 2008
EU, Mediterranean states try to push trade talks on
By Estelle Shirbon
MARSEILLE, France, July 2 (Reuters) — EU trade ministers and their counterparts from 13 Mediterranean countries tried to find ways on Wednesday to boost commercial flows but experts said their aim of a free trade area by 2010 looked unattainable.
The talks were the first major event of France’s six-month EU presidency which started on Tuesday and were part of the build-up to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pet project, a July 13 summit on a proposed Union for the Mediterranean.
"What we want is a reinforced partnership ... in which European countries take into account the concerns of countries on the south rim of the Mediterranean," said Abdelatif Maazouz, Morocco’s trade minister, on his way into the talks.
He cited agriculture, services and free movement of workers as some of the areas where he would most like to see progress.
The European Union and its Mediterranean neighbours have been negotiating as a group and bilaterally to lower trade barriers as part of the Barcelona Process launched in 1995.
Progress has been made on scrapping tariffs on manufactured goods. For example, Mediterranean countries that reach a bilateral association agreement with the EU automatically enjoy duty-free access to the EU market for their industrial goods.
However, progress towards deeper regional integration has been slow, not least because of divisions among Mediterranean countries themselves. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tense relations between Morocco and Algeria and the Greek-Turkish dispute over Cyprus are just some of the flashpoints.
KEY TRADING PARTNERS
The 2006 Agadir Agreement created a free trade area between Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt and those countries enjoy advantages in trade with the EU such as preferential access for goods produced jointly in several of the four countries.
"The idea of a free trade area by 2010 would generalise to all Mediterranean countries the Agadir system, but I’m pretty sure that a number of the countries will not have completed (the process) by then," said Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.
Trade with EU countries is essential to Mediterranean states, representing 46 percent of their exports and 41 percent of their imports in 2007, according to EU data.
The issue of farming is one of the stumbling blocks to trade deals with Mediterranean countries, who like many other emerging economies want greater access to the EU market. They also want to make it easier for their citizens to work in the bloc.
But Sarkozy is a staunch defender of farming subsidies, of which France is the main beneficiary, triggering a recent clash with EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson over the EU’s agriculture concessions in world trade talks.
Also, one of Sarkozy’s priorities for the French EU presidency is for member states to harmonise immigration policies along tougher lines.
"There is a serious EU credibility problem when it tries to push projects which have a development angle while at the same time promoting stricter immigration policies and refusing to open up agriculture," said Nathalie Tocci, senior fellow at the Institute for International Affairs in Rome.
As well as the 27 EU member states, the Mediterranean countries taking part in Wednesday’s talks were Albania, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Mauritania, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Tunisia and Turkey. Libya has observer status. (Editing by Ralph Boulton)