EU backs Balkan free trade pact

The European Union on Wednesday expressed strong backing for efforts by Balkan nations to set up a free trade zone in South East Europe. EU officials said the planned launch of the free trade initiative by Balkan leaders Thursday in Bucharest would help prepare their nations for eventual membership of the Union .

"The developing trade between themselves is an essential part of building closer commercial, economic and political relations with the European Union," said EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson. The meeting of Balkan leaders in the Romanian capital will aim to expand an existing free trade agreement comprising Bulgaria , Romania and Croatia by the end of 2006, to bring in Albania , Bosnia , Macedonia , Moldova , Serbia-Montenegro and Kosovo.

However, Romania and Bulgaria may leave the agreement as they are hoping to join the EU on Jan, 1, 2007 . The free trade agreement is designed to replace a network of 31 bilateral agreements between the Balkan nations.

Mandelson is scheduled to attend the Bucharest meeting along with Olli Rehn, the European commissioner overseeing the EU's contacts with nations seeking to join the bloc. Rehn said the trade agreement would be "a good training ground for economic cooperation in preparation for EU membership."

The EU said the new agreement would simplify trade rules in the region, encouraging international investment. It should establish harmonized rules in areas such as antitrust legislation, government procurement and protection of patents and copyrights.

Trade between the EU and the Balkan nations has grown by 53 percent since 2001, reaching 79 billion (US$97 billion) last year and making the EU the region's biggest trade partner by far. Cross-border trade within the Balkan nations increased by a third from 2002 to 2004 to a total of 3.5 billion (US$4.3 billion), the EU said, reports the AP.

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