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Southeast European nations agree to deepen free-trade zone

Seven nations in Southeast Europe and the region of Kosovo agreed to deepen a free-trade zone next year to boost commerce among countries that aren't European Union members.

The agreement, to take effect on May 1 after ratification by member states, is meant to boost commerce, increase stability and help the western Balkans and Moldova cope with EU competition, Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu, who helped draft the agreement, told a news conference today. The EU-backed accord aims to replace 32 bilateral agreements between Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Moldova, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and the region of Kosovo. Romania and Bulgaria won't take part as they are joining the EU on January 1. The agreement widens the existing Central European Free Trade Agreement, or Cefta.

New areas to be covered include intellectual-property rights, state aid, trade in services and competition rules, Romania's government said in an e-mailed statement today. The signing „signifies a clear engagement from participating countries and the EU to work together so this project supports European convergence,” Tariceanu, whose country holds the rotating Cefta presidency this year, said. Trade among the Cefta nations was valued at €3.5 billion ($4.6 billion) in 2004, the most recent data. Last year, trade between the EU and the region reached €79 billion, 53% more than in 2001. Members of Cefta, founded in 1992, aim to eventually join the EU. Former Cefta members Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia left Cefta in 2004 after joining the EU. (Bloomberg)