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West Africa

The long road to emancipation

In the eyes of European policymakers, EPA talks with African countries have been dragging on for too long. They want to speed up the process with a new ultimatum, which, however, may jeopardise regional integration. Though the negotiations have not delivered results yet, they did serve to boost the competence of African diplomats as well as cooperation among West African countries.

By Mohamed Gueye

The European Commission has been negoti­ating Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with various regional organisations in Africa for almost 10 years. Up to 2002, Europe had unilaterally opened its market to all ACP countries (former colonies of EU members in Africa, the Caribbean and ­Pacific). This arrangement, however, was not compatible with WTO rules because it discriminated against non-ACP countries. To conform with the WTO, moreover, free trade agreements have to be mutual. For these reasons, the EU is now negotiating EPAs which will only come into force once all parties concerned have signed the treaties.

Initially, the negotiations were supposed to end by 2007. Four years later, however, agreements are still beyond reach. Without much noise in Brussels, the EU recently had a new idea to accelerate matters. A new EU regulation is to force dithering African governments to make up their minds and establish free trade zones. The new deadline is 31 December 2013.

By that date, the EU expects all countries that have not agreed to a new treaty yet to ratify their EPA according to the conditions on the table today. The EU threatens to close its markets to all countries that do not comply. This threat concerns the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, two members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and other countries. ECOWAS has concluded an interim EPA with the EU. Côte d’Ivoire has signed, but not ratified the agreement, while Ghana has agreed in principle, but not signed yet.

Nicholas Westcott, the director general for Africa at the EEAS (European External Action Service), said in Dakar in October: “We have made African countries a very good offer.” He pointed out that Europe was their most important trading partner and was offering open markets. At the same time, he insisted that the WTO rules had to be observed. According to Westcott, Africans must choose, either accepting or rejecting Europe’s proposal. In the latter case, the EU would do trade according to standard WTO rules, the diplomat said: “We must move on from the current situation that delivers neither growth nor development.”

Promoting regional integration ...

It does not look like Westcott is being heard in Africa. On the contrary, the EPAs remain controversial. As early as 2008, civil society organisations like the African Trade Network (ATN), a Ghanaian NGO, started to campaign against EPAs again at the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra, after having considered the issue dead before that event. They demanded that their governments not sign EPAs.

The negotiations were not useless, however. Since regional integration was seen as a precondition for EPA success, the talks have promoted closer regional cooperation. Linguistic divisions long hampered regional integration in West Africa, where there are three regional economic organisations:
– UEMOA, the predominantly Francophone West African Monetary Union that uses the CFA Franc and
– WAMZ, the West African Monetary Zone, with Anglophone countries preparing for another monetary union.

The EPA talks have given regional integration new momentum. Mauritania, for instance, has rejoined ECOWAS. The country had left some time ago to form the Arab Maghreb Union with north African nations.

For a long time, ECOWAS was little more than an empty shell, but it has been revitalised. It was started in 1973 and brought about UEMOA, but did not achieve much beyond that and interventions in the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone. For a long time, freedom of trade and travel were all ECOWAS offered the citizens of its member countries.

Due to the EPA talks, however, governments were compelled to draft a joint tariff policy. This was a ­major challenge and took a lot of time. In the end, however, the governments were successful. They harmonised diverging tariff rates. Nigeria, the only West African country with a noteworthy industrial sector, previously applied totally different rates from those used by countries that more or less still rely exclusively on foreign aid.

... and casting doubt on it

The EU ultimatum, to which every country has to respond on its own, is threatening to undo such progress however – to the benefit of Europe alone. The Côte d’Ivoire is still recovering from serious civil strife. It has not begun preparing for EPA approval. The new deadline Europe set has caused serious irritation. When African polit­icians speak off the record, they lament that their countries are being forced to choose between their neighbours and the EU, an important trade partner that imports goods like cocoa or coffee. All concerned hope that there will be some kind of solution that serves the needs of all parties by the end of 2013.

Officers at Senegal’s Foreign Ministry are convinced this is possible. They say they have already accomplished a lot. African countries have grown stronger in the talks over the years, one officer says: “We no longer have to accept everything the Euro­peans offer – and perhaps that is why they are suddenly in such a hurry.” Other experts share his view (see box).

Leaders like Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade were responsible for making the EU Commission understand that EPAs have to serve a developmental agenda. Shortly after the first EPA deadline ended in 2007, Wade began to point out the un­balanced nature of the treaty’s draft. He demanded a review, and began to fund awareness campaigns that were felt as far away as Brussels, at the door of the Commission’s headquarters. EU leaders realised that it is not only duty, but even serves their interests to promote development. They started the EPA Development Programme (EPAD), which critics, however, consider too little, too late.

Uproar in civil society

Tetteh Hormeku of the Third World Network Africa (TWN), a non-governmental organisation in Ghana, praises Senegal’s head of state for stemming European assertiveness. For a long time, he says, only civil society organisations campaigned against the EPAs. Many ­African diplomats did not take them seriously, Hormeku argues: “Just like the European Commission, they argued we were only in it for our own good.” Activists, he recalls, only got wide attention after Wade became the first African president to adopt their arguments, telling his government to let the EPA talks fail.

The Europeans may feel that things are not moving fast enough. But Africa has made a lot of progress since the talks began. Africans have learned to take better care of their interests. Cheikh Tidiane Dièye, a member of Senegal’s Plateforme de la ­Société Civile pour les Ape (Civil Society Platform for EPAs), stresses an important aspect: had EPAs been signed as desired by the EU in 2007, Africa would have become unable to start new partnerships with China, Brazil or other emerging markets, for example.

According to Dièye, Europe came up with ever more clauses that would have outruled engagement with non-European partners. He believes that the result would have been “a neo-colonial race, neck to neck”, with the EU reducing Africa to a supplier of commodities. Dièye also says that the current EPA drafts would stand in the way of establishing a regional common market in West Africa.

Today, many Africans agree with Europeans that the EPA talks have to come to an end. Dièye is in favour of a complete revision. Any up-dated EPA version, he says, would have to take into account Africa’s changing role. Making this come true is a challenge to all parties involved, but most acutely so for Europe. The EU is the stronger partner and must prove that its pledges of generosity are not mere rhetoric, but ultimately result in action.

African diplomats are now convinced that the EPA drafts in their current versions would neither support economic expansion nor serve political integration. They consider the texts’ language an instrument for ­renewed African submission. It is up to ­Europe to ­convince them of things being different.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.