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By Hovannes Shoghikian
Armenia and the European Union have discussed preparations for the launch of official negotiations on a far-reaching free trade agreement that would significantly deepen their economic ties.

The possibility of such an agreement is a key element of the EU’s Eastern Partnership program that offers six former Soviet republics much closer integration with the 27-nation bloc in return for political and economic reforms. The program is expected to be formally launched at an EU summit in Prague in May.

A team of trade officials from the European Commission was in Yerevan late last week, meeting various Armenian government officials to map out a preparatory process for the anticipated free trade talks. They also discussed concrete legislative and institutional reforms which Armenia needs to undertake in order to qualify for a privileged trade regime with the EU.

“We had very useful discussions,” the head of the visiting delegation, Ewa Synowiec, said at the end of the talks. Synowiec said the delegation will hold another round of consultations with Armenian officials next month and will issue a report to EU member states by next summer.

“It is beneficial and useful for both parties to start comprehensive negotiations on a free trade agreement,” Armenian Economy Minister Nerses Yeritsian told RFE/RL. “I think we will have quite serious progress.”

Yeritsian said the planned talks could take between three and five years and will be accompanied by more structural reforms in Armenia. “We will see serious changes during that process,” he said. “They will cover the business environment, the development of certain institutions, export stimulation and access to the EU market.”

“The ambitions that we have in terms of development programs are in tune with European standards, legislation and institutional practices,” he said.

In a statement issued ahead of the fact-finding mission to Yerevan, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Trade said the Armenian government should not only bring the country’s laws into greater conformity with EU standards but also ensure their “proper implementation and enforcement.” “This would have a positive impact on transparency and predictability of Armenia's legislative framework and hence create a business friendly environment for domestic companies and foreign investors and as a result contribute to the economic growth, diversification of the economy and creation of jobs,” the statement said.

The EU has long been Armenia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 35.3 percent of its external trade last year. The volume of Armenia-EU trade rose by 14 percent in absolute terms, totaling $1.94 billion in 2008.

(Photolur photo: Nerses Yeritsian.)
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