Khurshid goes to Germany, Belgium; India-EU trade accord on cards

New Delhi, Jan 26 (IANS) Talks on concluding a long-awaited Free Trade Agreement with the European Union will top the agenda when External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid Monday heads to Germany, where he will meet Chancellor Angela Merkel, and later Belgium.

Khurshid will be paying a two-day official visit to Germany from Jan 28 and then to Belgium for Jan 30-31 trip and talks.

In Germany, Khurshid will hold bilateral talks with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Chancellor Merkel.

The talks are to focus on bilateral relations as well as regional and international issues of mutual interest. Summit level Indo-German consultations are slated to be held later this year when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Germany.

India and Germany are strategic partners since 2000 and share long-standing friendly relations based on common values of democracy, respect for fundamental rights and mutual trust. Both countries are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations.

Khurshid and Westerwelle met in November last year at Laos on the sidelines of the ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) when the German minister stressed on pushing ahead with the FTA, officially dubbed as Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA).

India and the EU are negotiating the FTA since June 2007. The talks were to conclude in 2011 but differences over the level of opening of the market have delayed the accord.

India has been seeking a single visa for its professionals on short-term contractual visits to the European Union. On the other hand, the EU has been asking for significant reduction in customs duty on cars, wines and spirits in their exports to India.

During his visit to Belgium, Khurshid will hold bilateral discussions with Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Didier Reynders and with the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, Baroness Catherine Ashton.

Two-way trade stood at $91.3 billion in 2010-11. A FICCI report says trade between the two sides is likely to more than double to exceed $207 billion by 2015, if the trade accord is formalised.

India and the European Union are bound by strong and friendly ties. India was amongst the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the European Economic Community. EU is one of India's largest trading partners, and an important source of technology and home to a large and influential diaspora.

The India-EU Summit meeting will be held in Brussels this summer and Khurshid's discussions with the EU leadership is a precursor to the visit of Manmohan Singh, said an official statement.

Diplomatic relations between India and Belgium were established in 1948, and they continue to be warm and friendly. Bilateral relations are strengthened by regular interactions at high levels. India will be the partner country in the Europalia 2013, the internationally acclaimed cultural festival hosted in Belgium from October 2013 to January 2014.

Belgium, especially Antwerp, is home to a large number of Indians who are involved in the cutting and polishing of diamonds. About 80 percent of Belgium's $45 billion annual diamond trade is run by Indians, mainly Gujaratis.

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