The year 2007 ended with the expiring of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) waiver that allowed preferential market access to ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) countries under the Cotonou Agreement.
The Cotonou trade chapter was consequently replaced by IEPAs (Interim Economic Partnership Agreements) between some ACP countries and the EU (European Union) – except in the case of the Caribbean who signed a full EPA with the EU.
After a year of acrimonious negotiations between the ACP and the EU to find a WTO compatible trade dispensation post-Cotonou, only 35 out of 79 ACP countries initialled an IEPA with the EU (including the 15 Caribbean countries that signed a full EPA).
Most of the LDCs (Least Developed Countries) in the ACP group opted for the EU’s EBA (Everything But Arms) deal to ensure continued market access post-2007, while some countries (especially those in West Africa) opted not to initial or sign any agreement with the EU.
Towards the end of 2007, the EU had to subside from its pressure on the ACP to sign full EPAs before year-end by agreeing to a goods-only agreement (as required by the WTO waiver).
This gave rise to a new two-tiered (two-step) initiative by the EU to have a goods-only agreement initialled before the end of 2007 to ensure duty free quota free market access for the ACP countries (step 1), with the auspices that the new generation issues would be negotiated during 2008 (step 2).
This two-tiered approach created further suspicion among the ACP countries about the EU’s real intentions with EPAs and its disregard for the Cotonou provisions.
Relief came during the EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon on 08 and 09 December 2007, when the President of the European Commission, Manual Barroso, informed African countries that the contentious issues in the IEPAs would be re-opened for negotiation in 2008.
This prompted Namibia to initial the IEPA with the EU on 12 December 2007, with an accompanying statement that the initialling is contingent on the re-opening of its contentious issues in the IEPA for negotiation.
The year 2008 had barely begun when the European Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, contradicted the words of Mr Barroso by stating: “I don’t believe Mr Barroso gave such a commitment to renegotiate.” (IPS: Africans Stuck With EU Deals, David Cronin, 29 January 2008).
He went on to say, “I certainly do not want to wait for years for ratification,” – a probable reference to the slow progress of the EPA negotiations in 2007 – and, “That would not be remotely in the interest of ACP countries. It would reintroduce the threat of a WTO challenge and would therefore be the very last thing I would recommend.”
The latter could be true, but what good would ratified EPAs do to the ACP if there are still (unresolved) contentious issues in these agreements?
This was echoed by Karin Ulmer from Aprodev, who said that Mandelson’s unwillingness to re-open the (2007) contentious issues in the IEPAs is a way of “trying to tighten the grip as much as possible” in an effort to avoid democratic scrutiny.
Belgian Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Alain Hutchinson, reacted by describing Mandelson as “an inflexible and cold commissioner” and that he “… should be more in favour of humane assistance, rather than pure capitalism.”
Welsh MEP, Glenys Kinnock, noted that it would be “surely unreasonable” to expect African governments to fast-track the implementation of EPAs by stating that in Europe agreements took longer to conclude and implement as what Mandelson is proposing with EPAs.
Italian MEP, Vitorrio Agnoletto, responded to the question of the regional integration objective of EPAs, stating that despite set regional configurations in Africa, the Commission decided to pursue IEPAs with individual countries within a configuration.
She continued that “The Commission has been able to apply the notion of divide and conquer” and “I think this is the logic the European Commission will continue to follow.”
As if history repeated itself, Mandelson rejected these calls. However, the hard-liner stance by Mr Mandelson must have created some tension within the European Commission, because Mr Barroso had committed to personally intervene to have a more hands-on approach with the EPA negotiation process in 2008 (IPS: Barroso’s EPA Intervention To Be “More Than Symbolic”, David Cronin, 31 January 2008).
During the 10th AU (African Union) Summit in Addis Ababa from 25 January to 02 February 2008, the Executive Council resolved that the initialling of IEPAs or the signing of full EPAs with the EU would have a direct influence on other regions in Africa.
The Council then approved a resolution that would disallow African regions to sign full EPAs “as long as the draft agreement is not submitted and discussed at the continental level”.
This resolution focuses on African unity in terms of Regional Economic Communities and the enhancement of regional integration in Africa – an attribute totally disregarded by the way the initialling of IEPAs was conducted towards the end of 2007 to fill up the list of ‘conquered’ countries.
Given the above, the EPA negotiations in 2008 would be launched from a platform of distrust and suspicion against the motives of the European Commission and in particular those of Mr Mandelson.
The year 2008 would be the last chance to engage in negotiations for beneficial and development-friendly EPAs before the EU Commissioners would be replaced by year-end.
The pressure on African countries will mount considerably during 2008 and they should fully comprehend the tactics of the European Commission in the EPA negotiations.
So where does this leave Africa in their endeavour to continue with the EPA negotiations in 2008? For these countries nothing is certain pertaining to the negotiation process ahead – as was the case in 2007. The breather afforded to it to continue negotiations in 2008 has not brought them one step closer to a solution – except if they subside to the pressures of the European Commission to accept a proposed deal – as was the case at the end of 2007.
African countries should ensure that they do no find themselves at the noose-end of the rope by the end of 2008!
Independent Trade Policy Analyst