European trade bloc EFTA eyes closer ties with Asia

Lugano, Switzerland, Jun 30 | Updated: Jul 2 2008, 03:20am hrs
Ministers from the four-nation European economic grouping EFTA agreed on Monday to extend their network of free-trade and investment pacts to India and key Southeast Asian countries.

The ministers from Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein also supported a global treaty being negotiated at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) but stressed they would need trade-offs for cutting the subsidies supporting their farmers. The European Free Trade Association, set up in 1960 as a counterweight to what is now the 27-nation European Union, is the world's 10th-largest goods trader and the fifth-largest in services.

Its wealthy member states remain outside the EU and do not use the euro currency.

A communique issued after their one-day meeting in Lugano, Switzerland, said the four states "stressed the importance of recent steps taken to advance relations between EFTA and important economic partners in Asia".

The ministers said they were ready to start talks on an agreement with Indonesia, resume stalled negotiations with Thailand and deepen dialogue with Malaysia. They welcomed the launch of negotiations with Delhi on a trade and investment agreement that they said should be possible to wrap up quickly.

The ministers also signalled optimism about prospects for free trade pacts -- which in EFTA's case exclude farming -- with Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Albania, Algeria and Peru.

Swiss economy minister Doris Leuthard said it was important that any global free trade pact at the WTO pry open markets for manufactured goods and services as well as in farming, where Switzerland and Norway are under pressure to cut subsidies.