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EPAs: Bumpy home stretch

by Tillmann Elliesen
The European Union is pressing for Economic Partnership Agreements to be concluded with all ACP countries by the end of the year. It would be better for all concerned, including Europe, if it took a more flexible approach.

[ By Tillmann Elliesen ]

The negotiations over Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries are heading into the home stretch. The EU Commission wants to have the agreements with all six regional groups wrapped up by the end of the year. Ambitious time frames for negotiations over economic policy are definitely sensible. They prevent talks from dragging on for years without reaching any conclusion. And it is also clear that economic relations between the 78 ACP countries and Europe need a new basis. The trade preferences which have prevailed since the 1970s have done little to help poor countries.

However, the EU should be more flexible in the EPA negotiations. Nine months before the planned end of the talks there is great uncertainty about the economic impacts the EPAs will have, especially in Africa. The EU Commission argues that the agreements are good for poor countries – the quicker they take effect, the better. However, as a member of the Nigerian Ministry of Finance recently commented, if the EU is really so concerned about the wellbeing of Africa, then why doesn’t it accept Africa’s call for the talks to be extended?

The reasons behind Europe’s haste are probably not quite so altruistic. The Economic Partnership Agreements are possibly also intended to help Europe’s position in the competition with China over African markets (see p. 175). That would not be improper, but should not happen at the expense of the African people. And too much pressure during the remainder of the talks could have exactly the opposite effect, namely that Africa turns even more to its new partner in development from the Far East. Europe runs the risk of stirring up a lot of trouble in its relations with Africa by insisting on the EPA deadline.

The Caribbean nations have said that they are in principle ready to sign an EPA with Europe. There is therefore nothing to stop the EU from concluding its talks with this region by the deadline planned. However, the Commission should be accommodating towards the desire expressed by the African governments for extra time. Concluding an agreement with the Caribbean nations would indicate to the WTO that the European Union and the ACP countries are serious about making their future relations compatible with international trade rules. This could earn leeway to extend talks with Africa, or, at least, to provide for eventual follow-up negotiations. The EU can demonstrate in the coming months that it is serious about a European-African partnership at eye level.