EU, Thailand launch free trade talks

The European Union and Thailand on Wednesday announced the launch of talks on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), seeking to boost annual commerce already worth some 30 billion euros ($39 billion).

"We are delighted to announce today the launch of free-trade negotiations between the EU and Thailand," European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso told a news conference held along with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Brussels.

Yingluck, who was hailed for peace efforts with Muslim rebels after a subsequent meeting with EU President Herman Van Rompuy, said that "Thailand hopes for quick conclusions" to the FTA.

The latest in a scramble for bilateral trade deals, the launch comes as EU leaders prepare to travel to Japan to start similar negotiations there, according to a Japanese daily.

Brussels is also hoping to take further steps towards an even bigger accord in the making with the United States, the world's largest economy, during an EU summit next week.

South Korea already has an FTA up and running with the EU, which is looking to do a deal with Singapore as well.

Thailand represents a strategic entry point to south-east Asia, with Brussels ultimately targeting broader cooperation with all countries in the region.

Thailand is "a central player in ASEAN," Barroso noted in reference to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

He added that "the EU wants southeast Asian integration to succeed" for wider stability.

Barroso presented a certificate to Yingluck, Thailand's first woman head of government, recognising Thai rice as protected under World Trade Organisation geographical indicators -- a first for products from southeast Asia.

The EU accounts for 10 percent of Thailand's external trade and some 5.5 million people visit the country each year from Europe, Yingluck noted.

"We look forward to extending cooperation in other areas," she said.

More than 5,000 lives have been lost in a decade-old conflict in southern border provinces, and Van Rompuy hailed the entry into peace dialogue as "a very significant and a courageous step."