The start-up of the negotiation of a free trade agreement (FTA) between the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2007, a priority of Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson's new trade strategy, is being threatened by the thorny issue of Burma. The European Commission, the member states and their Asian counterparts are currently engaged in discrete diplomacy to work out a compromise solution in the hope of getting the negotiations off the ground on time. The talks aim to do away with trade barriers between the two economic blocs. "We are working on it," recognised the Finnish EU Presidency in late December 2006. Finland's Trade Minister Paula Lehtomaki nevertheless refused at the time to give any details on the talks under way.

This low profile is due to the ticklish nature of the situation and concerns about the risk of compromising the diplomatic efforts of the ASEAN states, which are working behind the scenes to try to find an arrangement with Burma. The stakes are high: in the absence of a compromise, it will be impossible for the EU to start up the talks with the nine other ASEAN countries. "The Burmese problem could delay the launch of the process," admitted an official at the Commission, which is counting on the creativity' of the diplomats to break the stalemate.


The sanctions imposed by the EU member states against the Burmese military junta, due to its serious human rights violations, keep the EU from negotiating an agreement with that country. This problem has been poisoning the Union's relations...

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