ASEAN and EU suspend free trade talks

ASEAN and the European Union (EU) have temporarily halted negotiations for a planned free trade agreement after two years of talks, Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Pangestu said Monday. The decision was taken last month due largely to disagreements over the scope of the proposed accord, Pangestu said in an interview with AFP on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-South Korea summit.
“We are temporarily postponing the negotiations… take a pause, not cancel,” she said.
Asked about the reasons for the temporary suspension, she said the two sides could not reach agreement on the scope of the talks and what areas should be included in the negotiations.
“Obviously, Europe wants to have a much more comprehensive coverage of issues like environment (and) labour, which are sensitive for ASEAN countries,” she said.
Diplomatic sources in ASEAN and the EU, however, have said continued human rights abuses and the slow pace of democratic reforms in ASEAN member Burma were key issues raised by the Europeans. Britain has proposed that the EU should pursue free trade talks with individual ASEAN states to sidestep signing an agreement with a group that includes military-ruled Burma. The EU has been at the forefront of international condemnation of Myanmar’s decision to put democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on trial.
The 63-year-old Nobel Peace Prize recipient faces up to five years in jail on charges of breaching the terms of her house arrest following an incident last month in which former US army veteran John Yettaw swam to her lakeside house.
ASEAN and the EU agreed in May 2007 to launch negotiations on a free trade accord but the talks have made little progress since then. An ASEAN-EU free-trade zone would cover nearly one billion people, making it one of the world’s largest if realised. The Southeast Asian grouping has signed free trade pacts with Australia and New Zealand as well as with China, Japan and South Korea. It expects to sign an agreement with India later this year.
Pangestu said Indonesia, ASEAN’s biggest country, had not considered negotiating a free trade accord with the EU on its own. But Jakarta is discussing the possibility of starting negotiations with Australia and the European Free Trade Association, which is made up of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway, Pangestu said.
“We are are likely to focus on those two first,” she said. Joint studies on the two planned free trade pacts have been carried out and we’ve come to a decision to talk about negotiations,” the minister added.
As part of attempts to restart stalled global trade talks, Indonesia will also also host a meeting of the Cairns Group of farm exporting nations in Bali next week. World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief Pascal Lamy and the new US Trade Representative Ron Kirk have been invited as special guests, Pangestu said, adding, however, she did not expect any breakthroughs.
“We are just expecting the beginning of a dialogue to restart talks,” she said.
The Cairns Group links agricultural exporting nations, which could play a major role in resolving the impasse in the WTO talks over farm subsidies and other issues.


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