Cartoons threat to EU trade talks

Gulf News 02/13/2006 (UAE)

Cartoons threat to EU trade talks

By Charles Stratford, Staff Reporter

Dubai: Free trade negotiations between the EU and GCC face being disrupted by the ongoing controversy surrounding cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), according to a Saudi official involved in the talks.

The GCC and the EU signed a framework economic co-operation agreement in 1988 but have so far failed to agree to a free trade deal.

According to the official, a final free trade agreement was due to be signed in December 2005 but was delayed due to "a few minor technical difficulties".

The official, on condition of anonymity, told Gulf News, "At this stage we still see it as consumer boycott action but if the protests continue, inevitably the issue will have to be brought into discussions. The longer it takes to resolve these technical difficulties and the longer the ’cartoon crisis’ continues the more chance there is of final negotiations being affected."

With over 80 billion euros worth of goods exchanged last year, the EU is already by far the largest trade partner with the GCC.

The official said it is too early to precisely gauge the economic fall out of the Danish product boycott. "It is too early to tell. We are obviously expecting there to be some affect but I believe over all trade with the EU is too great to be heavily affected."

While some European governments have issued statements distancing themselves from the action of newspaper editors who chose to publish the cartoons, large scale protests have continued across Europe and the Middle East.

Thousands of demonstrators are expected on the streets of London today in protests organised by a number of the UK’s largest Muslim organisations.

In France, the largest Muslim organisation, the French Council of Muslim Faith, has decided to take legal action against French newspapers that printed the cartoons.

According to Denmark’s Foreign Ministry, the Danish Ambassador to Syria and his staff were forced to leave the country on Friday because the "Damascus government could not guarantee their safety".

In the UAE, a spokesperson for Etisalat repeated the company’s official line that it wasn’t planning to purchase Denmark’s larg-est phone company, TDC. In January, Bloomberg News quoted Etisalat chief executive Mohammad Hassan Omran as saying that the company was considering buying TDC.

"For the time being there is no intention to take such a step," said Etisalat corporate communications manager Ahmad Bin Ali.

Speaking from Riyadh, EU Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and head of the EU delegation for the GCC Bernard Savage told Gulf News he hoped the crisis would end soon and said that so far it had not affected free trade negotiations between governments.

"Our hope is that the boycott and tensions will be diffused. We have people working to achieve this aim.

"I would prefer not to speculate at this stage about whether the crisis will affect talks between the EU and GCC governments in the near future".

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source: Gulf News