BRUSSELS: Europe’s top trade negotiator called for greater commercial ties with North African states making the transition to democracy on Thursday, saying he will unveil new proposals to achieve this next week.
Europe and its neighbors along the southern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean have long debated opening borders to exports and workers.
But progress has been thwarted by political tensions between them and EU reluctance to allow cheap food and labor from Africa into the 27-state bloc.
"We have to be willing to open our markets," Karel De Gucht told a committee of lawmakers at the European Parliament. "We will go to the core of the choice whether or not we want to be protectionist."
The toppling of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s governments as well as near-civil war in Libya have revived calls from European policy makers for commercial ties with the region to ensure economic and political stability.
Proposals for greater trade integration with North African states to be put forward next Wednesday will require "courage" from EU governments and lawmakers, De Gucht said.
Chastened by Pakistan experience
But De Gucht said he will not seek unilateral trade concessions or cuts to import tariffs such as those the European Union granted its war-ravaged Balkan neighbors in the 1990s.
He cited the unsuccessful EU attempt to grant temporary duty-free access to imports from Pakistan, an initiative that policymakers hoped would help Pakistan recover from last summer’s floods.
That initiative has been halted by vetos from other non-European members of the World Trade Organization, where it must be approved unanimously, De Gucht said.
"We bravely proposed this with respect to Pakistan," he said.
"It simply doesn’t work out in Geneva. There are countries who as a matter of principle refuse to make a linkage between trade and a natural disaster. I think you would see even more resistance if you were to try and link it to transition to democracy," he said.
"It is the very clear position of key stakeholders that they are not willing to proceed."
Lawmakers at the European Parliament, who can veto EU trade deals, called for careful deliberation on the issue.
"We need a policy for how we can, and whether we should, use trade policy for political purposes," said Vital Moreira, a socialist Portuguese lawmaker chairing the assembly’s trade committee. –Reuters