Trade ministers of the European Union (EU) and the southern Mediterranean countries on Sunday renewed their commitment to establish a free trade area in the region by 2010 and to enhance bilateral ties.
"The southern Mediterranean nations are important neighbors of the European Union. We are determined to deepen and strengthen ourlinks with them," said European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson at the press conference at the end of the sixth EuroMed Trade Ministerial Conference.
The meeting drew ministers from the 27 EU members and 10 southern Mediterranean countries, namely Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia.
Mandelson said that although significant progress has been made in trade between the EU and the southern Mediterranean nations, "more needs to be done to reach the full potential of this relationship, and there is still huge untapped potential for increased trade and investment flows in this region."
"Even small steps forward bring significant benefits," he said.
The commissioner said that thanks to the association agreement under the Barcelona process the southern Mediterranean countries had doubled their trade with the EU over the last decade and their trade deficit with the EU has been cut in half.
He announced that the ministers had agreed to forge ahead with bilateral agreements on services between the EU and the Mediterranean countries which had shown an interest in undertaking these negotiations.
"I am pleased to say that already Egypt, Morocco and Israel have said they wanted to start such negotiations with the EU," he said.
He said the EU very much welcomed the strong support shown at the meeting for further South-South regional integration.
Mandelson also said that the meeting had agreed on the establishment of a group of senior officials who will be responsible for drawing up a roadmap on how to diversify and enhance EuroMed trade.
The meeting also agreed on the formation of a EuroMed business forum and network, which will have a strong contribution to the bilateral relations, he said.