There are only a few weeks left for the European Union and nearly 80 former colonies to clinch new trade deals, the bloc’s trade chief said, while adding he was concerned that talks were going to the wire.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said the EU was open to temporary deals before broader, more ambitious agreements are worked on next year and countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) would be able to shield sensitive sectors.

“But I am becoming very concerned that our ACP partners are taking these market access negotiations to the edge,” Mandelson said in notes prepared for delivery to lawmakers in the European Parliament.

“As I have said to these partners, early November is the effective deadline for putting new market access arrangements through our system in time for Jan. 1.”

The EU has provided special, lower-tariff access to its market for goods from the ACP countries. But the World Trade Organization struck down the preferences in 2000 and said they should be scrapped by the end of 2007.

“If we have WTO-compatible offers in the next 2-3 weeks, I am optimistic we and the (EU) member states can put the new regime in place in time,” Mandelson said.

“After that, we will do everything we can, but cannot guarantee any country improved market access from Jan. 1.”

Development campaigners such as Oxfam have accused Mandelson of strong-arming poor countries into accepting the new Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that they say will hurt their economies.

But Mandelson said the EU would not try to buy more time for the negotiations by seeking a new waiver from the WTO.

Brussels says the EPAs, along with aid to improve export capacity in poor countries, will take development to a new level by fostering regional markets, creating economies of scale and attracting foreign investment.

The European Commission and the Pacific region agreed on Oct. 2 to aim for an interim deal focusing on goods trade by Dec. 31, leaving more sensitive issues such as services and public procurement for talks next year.

Interim deals may also be struck with some of the four African regions of the ACP group, Commission officials say.

Most progress to date has been made with the Caribbean region, which sees a deal including services as helping its tourism sector, they say.

Mandelson said Brussels might agree to different treatment for countries within the same region, such as in eastern and southern Africa. (Reuters)