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EU Expects to Close Free Trade Deal with Gulf Nations "In the Near Future"

The European Union said Monday it expects to complete a free trade agreement with Gulf nations "in the near future" after making progress at talks last week.

The 27-nation EU is the largest trade partner for the Gulf Cooperation Council, a political and economic alliance gathering Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

A deal should set common rules that would encourage trade in goods and services, increase investment, protect intellectual property rights and open up public procurement.

It would also cover human rights, illegal immigration and the fight against terrorism.

It would not affect EU imports of oil from the Gulf as they are not charged with any tariffs.

The European Commission said a deal would be built on existing World Trade Organization agreements to deepen trade liberalization in goods and services.

Such bilateral pacts have taken on more importance after prospects for a new, more ambitious global trading deal faltered last year. Key actors in the WTO negotiations meet next week in Switzerland to see if it is possible to grab a narrow window of opportunity to move forward.

The EU and the Gulf states started discussing a free trade deal in 1990 but that stalled as the GCC moved to form a customs union by 2005, aiming to boost the region's economy.

Both sides will meet again next month for technical discussions that could pave the way for the deal to be signed soon.

"I believe that we are now in a position to resolve final issues and complete an EU-GCC FTA deal in the near future," EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said in a statement.

The six Gulf nations are the sixth largest export market for the EU. European exports were worth $51.6 billion in 2004, around half of that machinery and transport goods such as power generation plants, railway engines and aircraft. EU imports from the Gulf in that year totaled $32.2 billion, mostly oil.

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