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EU, South American bloc reported close to free trade accord

[BRASILIA] The European Union and the South American economic and political bloc called Mercosur are close to concluding a free trade accord after decades of fitful talks, an EU official said Friday.

Holding his index finger and thumb just slightly apart, Jyrki Katainen, an EU Commission vice-president, said: "We're that close to having a new association and trade agreement between EU and Mercosur."

He spoke after talks with Brazilian President Michel Temer and the foreign ministers of Mercosur. The member countries are Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. Venezuela is a member but has been suspended, while Bolivia is in the process of joining.

"At a time when some are building walls, we want to build bridges," Temer said as he stood with the ministers. He was clearly referring to President Donald Trump's drive to construct a wall along the US border with Mexico.

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The two sides are working hard to complete an agreement, at least at the political level, so they can make an announcement next month in Buenos Aires during a ministerial-level meeting of the World Trade Organization.

The two sides have been trying to negotiate a free trade accord for nearly two decades.

But the process has been hampered by setbacks and the discussions were suspended altogether in 2004.

They resumed six years later with a commitment on both sides to sweeten their original offers.

Bones of contention include Mercosur exports of beef and ethanol to the EU.

Other touchy issues that remain to be settled include government procurement, some agricultural goods and intellectual property rights, Brazilian officials said.

After Donald Trump took office in January with his vehement stance against free trade accords, the EU went on an offensive in the opposition direction and in July sealed with Japan a political agreement similar to the one it is trying to close now with Mercosur.