The prime ministers of Albania, Bosnia-Hertegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia signed a new Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) in Bucharest on Tuesday. The deal replaces the current network of 32 bilateral and free trade accords between SE Europe countries and will contribute to the creation of a free trade area in the region.

Romania and Bulgaria will leave CEFTA when they join the European Union on January 1, 2007.

The creation of a single such agreement is aimed at boosting commercial exchanges and to support countries in the region to prepare more efficiently to cope with rules and competition pressure on the single market, Romanian PM Calin Popescu Tariceanu said on the occasion.

He said the initiative was supported by the European Commission and top EU officials.

For his part, European Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn, who attended the reunion, said that CEFTA complements stabilization and association accords that the Commission operates or negotiates with Western Balkan countries. For candidate and potential candidate countries CEFTA is a phase of initiation to the tight economic cooperation specific to EU member states, he said.

The deal is the most important multilateral accord in the region as it is the first form of regional economic association since the fall of communism regimes in this part of Europe.

Romania has been a member of CEFTA since 1997.