EU ministers hold informal meeting to discuss trade deals with Ukraine, US

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Ministers from the European Union's Foreign Affairs Council were discussing developments in Ukraine and trade with the United States during an informal meeting on Friday in the Greek capital.

Talks were focusing on a free trade deal being negotiated with the U.S., and on the EU's economic relationship with Ukraine.

The 28-country bloc last year offered Ukraine a wide-ranging free trade and association agreement expected to yield 20 billion euros ($27.5 billion) in EU loans and grants for Kiev over the seven years following the deal's signature.

A last-minute refusal by Ukraine's now fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, to sign the deal that would have brought the country closer to Europe sparked the public protests that quickly spiraled into a full-blown crisis that has left dozens dead.

Ukraine's population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the EU while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support. The EU and Ukraine had previously signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1998.

The EU's offer is still on the table, and officials in Brussels have said the deal would provide a boost to Ukraine's economy, opening the world's biggest market for Ukrainian exporters while shielding them from full competition for many years.

Greece currently holds the bloc's rotating six-month presidency, and is hosting a series of informal ministerial meetings in Athens.

Negotiations on the trade deal with the U.S. began in July, but were partially suspended in January for the EU to hold a three-month consultation over concerns about some of the deal's proposed rules for investment.

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