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World trade

Overwhelmed by speed and scope

by D+C | E+Z

Opinion

Anti-EPA campaigners / Anti-EPA Protest.

Anti-EPA campaigners / Anti-EPA Protest.

The European Commission is prepared to postpone the conclusion of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with its partners in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP). Brussels is now considering interim agreements to initially exclude problematic topics. [ By Mohamed Guèye ]

In late October, European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told a committee of the European Parliament that some partner regions needed some more time to negotiate comprehensive EPAs, which are supposed to deal with the trade in goods, but also tackle controversial “Singapore” issues like investor rights or rules on government procurement. According to Mandelson, the EU is now striving for goods-only interim agreements by the end of the year. It has already decided to proceed that way in the case of the Pacific group of countries.

Such interim agreements may indeed safeguard ACP countries’ uninterrupted enjoyment of preferential trade with the EU. But what about those countries that are unable – or unwilling – to even conclude interim agreements by the end of the year? It is said in Brussels that the EU would then have to impose its normal tariffs on these countries, as it does on other trade partners. That scenario is terrible.

Non-governmental organisations of the Stop-EPA-Campaign therefore want the Commission to apply for a WTO waiver, in order to extend the old “Cotonou Agreement”. The EU must indeed make sure that ACP countries do not suffer from EPA-postponement. Otherwise, it would be responsible for slowing down regional integration in Africa at the very time it is improving its own institutional set-up.

Of course, long-term agreements remain an important goal. It is wrong to assume that EPA failure would not matter much because of EBA, the Everything-But-Arms initiative, which defines Europe’s trade relations to Least Developed Countries (LDC). Yes, many ACP countries belong in the LDC category. But what about those that do not? Cape Verde, a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), will soon move on from LDC status. Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are not LDCs. It would be most unfair to deny their products free access to Europe, at a time when EU goods are traded without restriction throughout ECOWAS thanks to Europe’s special relations with ECOWAS members of LDC status.
In 2003, the WTO summit failed in Cancùn. It was obvious back then that many African countries would not be ready to sign EPAs by 2008. Nonetheless, the EU and the USA immediately started to press for bilateral trade deals. In their view, the multilateral system had failed. African governments, however, did not deliberately slow down EPA talks. Many politicians simply do not understand trade matters, and that is one reason why developing countries refused to deal with the Singapore issues at Cancùn. Unfairly, the EU immediately put these issues on the EPA agenda.

Of course, the governance-related Singapore issues are important. But Africans must first come to grips with these issues themselves before dealing with them in international talks.

For negotiations among equals, Africa needs more trade expertise than it has so far. In West Africa, such expertise resides primarily with ECOWAS as well as WAEMU, the West African Economic and Monetary Union, which shares the CFA, a currency tied to the Euro. Most Francophone countries in West Africa are WAEMU members. Coordination between ECOWAS and WAEMU is not easy, and the setting is similar in Central and Eastern Africa.

The EPA process is not without merit. Thanks to it, WAEMU was able to introduce a common external tariff. Since the EPA talks started, intraregional trade jumped from 18 to 32 % of West African foreign trade. Without EPA pressure, political leaders would no longer fear the danger of European goods being dumped in their markets and fast lose interest in regional integration.

The way things were going, however, Europeans expected Africans to simply rely on the EU’s good intentions as well as its development assistance. As if fair partnership did not always hinge on respecting other parties’ limitations in terms of handling how much in what time.