HUA HIN, Thailand: Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) want to negotiate as a group with the European Union for a proposed free-trade agreement (FTA), Indonesia’s trade minister said Sunday.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has signed a number of free trade pacts and is looking to further boost trade to protect its export-driven economies from the global financial meltdown.

“We still maintain that if there’s going to be an Asean-EU FTA then it has to be region to region. Asean has not changed on that position,” Trade Minister Mari Pangestu said in an interview.

Britain’s Minister for Trade and Investment Gareth Thomas told Agence France-Presse in January that both regional groupings should adopt a new approach in ongoing free-trade negotiations in an effort to speed up the talks.

He said that the EU could negotiate deals with individual Asean states instead of talking to the 10-nation bloc as a whole, and that bilateral pacts could later be developed into a regional agreement.

Pangestu said Asean wanted a region-to-region pact, although countries were free to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with the EU if they were approached.

“If some countries are going to be approached for bilaterals, that’s another issue . . . that is their right to do it,” she said in the interview on the sidelines of an Asean summit in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin.

“But I don’t think we want to have a situation where they negotiate bilaterally with only a few and then try to add it up for that becoming an Asean-EU [pact].”

Asean and the EU agreed in May 2007 to launch negotiations for a regionwide free-trade accord. But the talks have made little progress due to problems including EU concerns over rights violations in Asean member Myanmar.

Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said last year that a free trade agreement between the bloc and the EU was one of the most challenging to negotiate due to the complexity of the talks.

An Asean-EU free-trade zone would cover nearly one billion people, making it one of the world’s largest.

The Southeast Asian grouping has signed free trade pacts with Australia and New Zealand as well as with China, Japan and South Korea. It expects to sign an agreement with India later this year.

Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. – AFP