By Ruben Meloyan
The European Union is considering signing a free trade agreement with Armenia as part of its efforts to strengthen ties with the South Caucasus state, a senior official from the EU’s executive Commission on Thursday.
Hugues Mingarelli, deputy head of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for External Relations, said during a visit to Yerevan that the EU is currently looking into such possibility and plans to open negotiations with the Armenian government soon.
“In the coming months we hope to engage in a dialogue with the Armenian authorities on the possibility of establishing a free trade zone,” he said during a lecture at the French University in Armenia.
The EU has been Armenia’s number one trading partner ever since the late 1990s. According to official Armenian statistics, EU member states accounted for 39 percent of the country’s external trade in the first four months of this year. The total volume of the Armenia-EU commercial exchange rose by 35 percent to almost $597 million in this period.
According to Mingarelli, a “preferential” trade regime would give Armenian exporters greater access to the affluent European markets. “It’s a regime that will allow Armenia to export its goods to the European Union with very favorable customs duties,” he said.
Mingarelli discussed the issue with Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian later in the day. His other interlocutors included Finance Minister Tigran Davtian and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian.
His talks with Davtian were followed by an announcement that the EU has released the first installment of a 16 million-euro grant designed to help the Armenian government fight youth unemployment through a reform of the education sector. The assistance is part of a 21 million-euro aid package that was approved by the European Commission last year. EU assistance to Armenia totaled more than 400 million euros ($620 million) from 1992-2006.
According to the Foreign Ministry in Yerevan, Nalbandian assured the visiting EU official that the Armenian government will continue its “consistent steps to move closer to the European family.” He said the government is committed to implementing political and economic reforms stemming from Armenia’s inclusion in the EU’s European Neighborhoods Policy (ENP) program.
The tense political situation in Armenia triggered by last February’s disputed presidential election was also on the agenda of Mingarelli’s visit, with the EU official meeting with opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian on Wednesday.
“The union is continuing to closely follow the situation and to encourage the Armenian authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition and respect freedom of assembly,” Mingarelli said the next day. “At the same time we are urging the opposition to take a responsible stance and to do its job of an opposition in a construction manner.”
Ter-Petrosian, according to his office, reiterated that he will be ready to negotiate with the authorities only after the release of dozens of his loyalists arrested in the wake of the February 19 election.
(Photolur photo: Hugues Mingarelli.)