A senior Gulf Arab official has voiced optimism over efforts to reach a free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), ahead of talks in the Bahraini capital on Monday, April 23.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and EU are "optimistic" the talks will help "pave the way to the development of a free trade area ... bolstering cooperation in all areas", Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad Bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa said Sunday.
Sheikh Mohammad, whose country holds the GCC presidency, told Bahrain's official news agency GNA that the optimism was "based on the progress made by the two sides following the decision of the GCC leaders to unify customs tariffs by 2005".
The six-nation GCC approved plans for a customs union in November 1999.
Sweden's Deputy Prime Minister Lena Hjelm-Wallen, whose nation is the EU's current president, will lead the delegation in meetings with the GCC foreign ministers.
EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, who on Saturday held talks in Riyadh on Saudi Arabia's campaign to join the World Trade Organization, is also expected in Manama along with British Foreign Office Minister Brian Wilson.
The GCC, which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long pushed for a trade deal with Europe.
The bloc is critical of high taxes levied by the EU on its refined oil products and Gulf aluminum, as well its massive trade deficit with Europe, which hit $18 billion in 1998.
But even if an agreement can be reached, it will not be implemented before the GCC launches the Gulf-wide customs union. The Gulf states have pledged to work toward making their tariffs uniform ahead of the 2005 target.
A GCC official has said the Manama meeting would also cover "the dangerous developments which have happened in the region and the possibility of Europe playing a more active role to give impetus to the Middle East peace process."
"The situation in the Gulf region, Iraq and Iran will also be on the agenda," the official added. — (AFP, Manama)
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)