San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

EU Trade Agreement on Hold

The Honduran crisis is delaying trade agreement negotiations between Central America and the European Union (EU), as diplomats wait to see how the political situation there plays out.

Honduras’ participation in brokering an EU-Central American Association Agreement has faltered since the June 28 coup that sent its president, Manuel Zelaya, into exile. After returning to Honduras last month and seeking refuge in the Brazilian Embassy, Zelaya and the provisional government have had another pressing agreement to negotiate – one that would end the crisis, including possible presidential elections in November (see separate story).

EU representatives who visited Costa Rica this week said they are close to reaching a trade agreement with the region, but they will wait until after November before seeking to seal the pact.

“We have to see what will happen in November … and if (Honduras) can get out of this situation,” said Emine Bozkurt, president of an EU delegation that arrived in Costa Rica on Sunday and has spent the week in meetings with legislators, President Oscar Arias and Foreign Ministry officials. “We were really close in June … (before the coup).”

While some members of the delegation expressed reluctance at pinning the fate of a three-year regional negotiation process on developments in a single country, most agreed that a month-long delay isn’t unreasonable.

The delegation’s visit to Costa Rica was prompted, in part, by lobbying efforts undertaken by Foreign Ministry officials here.

Last week, Costa Rica sent Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno and Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruiz to Europe to push for progress on the Association Agreement.

Officials in Europe told the Costa Rican diplomats that the priority of the EU is to arrive at a solution in Honduras, which could then open the way for continued negotiations.

“Political interests shouldn’t get away with coup d’etats,” Bozkurt said, echoing her colleagues this week. “It’s important that we find a solution for Honduras.”

Formal talks for a trade agreement began in October of 2007 and were expected to conclude this year. But internal conflicts in Central America have pushed diplomats into additional rounds of negotiations.

An agreement with the EU hinges on a commitment of integration among the Central American nations, including collaboration in developing common policies, the implementation of a customs union, and a reduction in vulnerability to natural disasters.

Until June, when the Honduran crisis erupted, the main sticking point in negotiations was high tariffs placed on fruit imports from Central America, an issue that Bozkurt said would be addressed in the coming months.

“The Association Agreement is not only about trade,” said Bozkurt in a Tuesday meeting with member of the local press.

“It’s about human rights, democracy … and social issues.”

When some expressed pessimism about the ability of Central America to be entirely conflict-free and remain committed to agreed-upon policies, delegation member Edvard Kožuñík said the EU is an agreement among 27 countries, noting that Central America includes only six countries.

The delegation continued its tour with a visit to Panama.


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