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Central/Eastern Europe: Agricultural Trade Issues To Highlight Conference

Prague, 10 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria will mark its new membership to the Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA) when the organization's heads of government meet for a two-day conference starting tomorrow in Prague.

Bulgaria is the newest addition to the seven-member CEFTA, which also includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania. The Prague summit will look at progress since the previous summit in Portoroz, Slovenia last year. The Czech Republic holds the group's rotating presidency.

Ministers of economy and industry from Poland, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak republics created CEFTA in 1992. The association was created to establish a free trade zone by the year 2001 by gradually reducing and eliminating tariffs.

Bulgaria's membership to the organization brings CEFTA's trading reach to about 100 million people. Other nations, such as Croatia and Macedonia have expressed interest in future membership.

Liberalization in trade of agricultural products is expected to be a dominant topic at this summit. At a meeting of CEFTA agricultural ministers in Prague in August, talks on liberalizing trade were put off to analyze national farm policies and their compatibility.

Slovenia opposes liberalization because it says cheaper imports would endanger its farmers.

Romania and Hungary are also in a dispute about wheat taxes. Romania has recently put import duties on wheat and flour from Hungary, which Romania says is in line with CEFTA agreements. But Hungary is protesting the move saying there were no consultations before Romania imposed the measures.

Romanian farmers, meanwhile, have protested Hungarian imports to their country. Last month farmers blocked border crossing points between the two countries saying that Hungarian wheat subsidies and trade unions are making Hungarian agriculture products cheaper than Romanian products.

Another sticking point between CEFTA countries is the issue of integration of some of its members into the European Union (EU). At a CEFTA meeting last year, U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat called CEFTA an "export platform" back to the EU. But member countries who are not in line for EU integration have criticized the comparison, fearing that once CEFTA members gain EU membership, they'll abandon the association. Four CEFTA members --the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia-- are now in line for EU admission.

Premiers will also discuss the impact of Russia's financial crisis on countries in the region. Bilateral national agendas may also come into play. This week, Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar said he'd use the summit to talk to Czech Premier Milos Zeman about current issues such as the return of Slovak gold still held by the Czech National Bank and the division of former Czechoslovak property. Meciar has said he wants to improve shaky Czech-Slovak relations by holding talks with Zeman. Meciar is also due to meet Polish Premier Jerzy Buzek.