EU-Gulf free trade deal edges closer

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Long running negotiations for a free trade agreement between the six Gulf Cooperation Council members and the European Union are close to being finalised, according to government ministers who attended high level talks in Bahrain.

In comments that appeared to show the GCC’s reinvigorated desire to seal a FTA between the two major blocs in the free world, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said negotiators should now “strive harder to overcome the remaining obstacles to finalise signing”.

However, the GCC’s insistence that it retain the right to impose duties on its exports remains the one major stumbling block.

"I can say that almost 99 per cent of the items have being agreed and only one issue related to export duties is currently being reviewed before any decision is reached," Sheikh Khalid told media following a meeting with EU officials in Manama, according to Gulf Daily News.

Free-trade negotiations between the EU, which now has 28 members after Croatia joined on Sunday, and the GCC, which includes Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, have been ongoing since 1990.

Talks have stalled or been suspended on numerous occasions, including in recent years due to disagreements on petrochemical subsidies, foreign companies holding majority stakes in GCC companies, export duties and human rights.

The discussions regained momentum in the lead-up to this week’s 23rd EU-GCC joint council ministerial meeting, chaired by Sheikh Khalid.

"We want to finalise this key agreement as soon as possible as it will be a huge achievement for EU and GCC states," Sheikh Khalid said.

"If we can sign it today we will without any hesitation but the point on export duties is complex and needs to be reviewed.

"Several years have now elapsed since the start of negotiations on the FTA between our two blocs and despite the strenuous efforts made by all parties, we should now strive harder to overcome the remaining obstacles to finalise signing of what would be an FTA between the two major blocs in the free world."

The EU also has been seen to put added emphasise on the potential FTA, last month announcing a new 4.7 percent levy on jet fuel from the Middle East.

The GCC is the EU's fifth biggest export market, worth 75bn euros ($97.7bn) in 2011 and the EU is the GCC's largest trading partner, with 13.5 percent of its global trade.

"The GCC is an increasingly important partner, not least because our bilateral trade has increased by 45percent since 2010 to reach 145bn euros annually," EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said.

"It is a fantastic trade agreement."

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