EU forges ahead with more free trade plans with Latin America

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VIENNA, Austria (AP) – The European Union and six Central American leaders said Saturday they hoped to launch free trade talks before the end of the year.

EU leaders at a summit with Latin American and Caribbean countries warned Bolivia and Venezuela that their increasingly nationalist policies could clip economic growth, and urged them to open up their markets to promote trade. Bolivia recently nationalized its natural gas sector while Venezuela announced plans for a new tax on foreign oil firms.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he hoped he could get a mandate from EU governments before the end of the year to launch talks on a so-called association agreement, including a free trade pact, with Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

“What we agreed today is to speed up and launch this process,” said Panamanian Vice President Samuel Lewis Navarro. “We hope the time-scale (of the negotiations) will be worked out as soon as possible.”

The agreement came at the end of a three-day summit attended by 58 leaders of EU, Latin American and Caribbean nations in the Austrian capital.

On Friday, European leaders said one way to end poverty and marginalization was to boost economic ties with Europe.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson used his talks with Latin American countries, notably Brazil, to push efforts to break a deadlock in world trade talks.

Talks on a global trade deal have been deadlocked due to divisions between rich and poor countries over the opening of their agricultural markets.

The EU also agreed to expand an existing four-year-old free trade accord with Chile.

“We have urged Chile to display its very important influential role in Latin America, Chile is a great success,” Barroso said. “In 2005, the trade (between the EU and Chile) grew by 23.6 percent … so that shows that trade is a win-win situation.”

Bolivia’s recent decision to nationalize its natural gas sector overshadowed Friday’s summit session.

The EU held follow-up talks with four Andean nations – Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia – and agreed to special talks over the next months to try to resolve disagreements over whether to launch full trade negotiations.

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said he hoped the talks, which EU officials said could stretch into July 2006, could lead to a free trade pact between the two blocs by 2008.

But Bolivia and Venezuela have blocked attempts at free trade pacts with the United States and it remained unclear after Friday’s talks whether the two would be open to such deals with the EU.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez did not attend the summit as he wants his country to withdraw from the Andean Community grouping.


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