EU starts push for new trade pacts with North Africa

BRUSSELS, March 1 Fri Mar 1, 2013 10:25am EST

BRUSSELS, March 1 (Reuters) - The European Union began talks with Morocco on a free-trade deal on Friday, the EU's first in a planned series aimed at deepening trade ties with North African nations two years after a wave of Arab uprisings.

"Just announced the launch of negotiations for a free-trade agreement with Morocco," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on his Twitter feed from Rabat.

The negotiations are the first part of a European strategy to draw North African neighbours closer to the 27-country EU.

Arab uprisings toppled Arab leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011, but King Mohammed VI defused protests in Morocco by announcing constitutional changes and holding an election that brought an Islamist-led government to office.

The European Council, which represents the member states, approved the idea of deep and comprehensive free-trade agreements with Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia in 2011.

Trade between the EU and Morocco amounted to roughly 24 billion euros of goods in 2011, and the EU is keen to open up trade in the services sector.

Morocco is the largest recipient of European neighbourhood aid, money given to the EU's immediate periphery, with 580.5 million euros ($760 million) earmarked for 2011-2013, according to the European Commission.

"Smooth negotiations of the free-trade agreement are crucial because they serve as an example for other countries in the southern Mediterranean," said Marielle De Sarnez, a French member of the European Parliament.

"This agreement will also allow in the long term greater regional integration for the Maghreb countries."

Morocco's exports to the EU are mainly clothing, agricultural products and machinery.

The EU sold roughly 15 billion euros of goods to the North African country in 2011, with exports growing at roughly 5 percent a year from 2007-2011. (Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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