Danang, Vietnam — The European Union expects to conclude a free trade deal with Singapore by the end of next year and is likely to begin talks with other Southeast Asian nations soon, a top official said on Friday.The EU’s trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, also said Europe still hopes to ultimately reach a region-wide deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

He said a regional pact has not been possible partly because of military-ruled Myanmar, which is under European sanctions.

Another hindrance was the differing levels of economic development within the 10-member ASEAN, he told reporters after talks with Southeast Asian economic ministers.

Attempts to reach a pact with all of the ASEAN members except Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos were suspended last year, after which the EU began looking at bilateral pacts.

De Gucht said two rounds of talks have been held with Singapore — the region’s most developed economy — and a third is to take place next month.

“Negotiations with Singapore are going well,” he said. “We expect these negotiations being closed and having come to a positive end before the end of next year.”

He added that formal free trade talks with Vietnam are likely to begin before the end of this year, followed by other countries “in the coming months.”

De Gucht declined to name the other nations but he told AFP that each of the seven that participated in the earlier suspended talks “have expressed in one way or another interest”.

ASEAN itself is working towards a single market and manufacturing base by 2015.

De Gucht said that once such an integrated market is achieved it would make sense for the region’s bilateral trade pacts to be consolidated into a region-wide deal.

Asked whether such a deal could, however, be reached unless the human rights situation in Myanmar improves, he told AFP: “It’s obvious that we are not ready, the European Union is not ready, to negotiate with Myanmar but who knows what the political situation will be in Myanmar in five years or in seven years.”

The EU is the bloc’s largest foreign investor, and second-largest trade partner, with two-way trade worth almost 172 billion dollars last year.