Ten years after their start in 2002, the negotiations for the signing of the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the EU and Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries are in a deadlock. The challenge is to replace the non-reciprocal trade regime and preferential access of the Cotonou agreement by a free trade agreement that would force the ACP states to open more their markets to European products. So far, only the Caribbean member countries signed an EPA with the EU in 2008. Negotiations are dragging on with the two other regions.
On September13, the European Parliament pushed the ultimatum launched in 2011 by the European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht by two years. At that time, De Gucht threatened to suspend the preferential duty-free and quota-free access to the European market from the January 1st 2014 for 18 ACP countries which did not ratify those agreements. Seven low middle-income countries are concerned. The list includes Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Fiji, Ghana, Kenya, Swaziland and Zimbabwe whose access will be reduced to the less favourable Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). According to the assistant Secretary General of the ACP Group, Achille Bassilekin, this means that these countries will receive the same treatment as large emerging countries such as India, Brazil and China which are far more competitive. Exporters of semi-finished products such as leather will be hit the hardest.
« The impact can be serious. The EPAs should be an instrument of increased access to the European market, but that will not be the case anymore. Moreover, the process of regional integration will be further dislocated because the member states of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) will have different customs regimes», explains Bassilekin. Accordingly, LDCs will get the Everything But Arms (EBA) treatment, whereas others will get the GSP treatment and some who may sign in haste an EPA would receive a third different kind of treatment. Moreover, countries such as Namibia, Botswana, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Angola which have not signed any agreement with the EU, risk loosing any preferential treatment.
Thanks to the European Parliament’s vote, Africans got a reprieve. British Labour MP, David Martin, who backed the decision declared : «This is a realistic timeframe to work towards fair and development-focused EPAs with our ACP partners. No ACP country should be forced to sign an unsatisfactory agreement. Some African countries perceive the Commission’s urgency as heavy pressure on them to accept unsatisfactory partnership agreements. This is not the trade and development relationship we should have with our ACP partners ».
The Secretary General of the ACP, Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas said the European Parliament’s vote extending the deadline for concluding EPAs with ACP countries, showed «wise political judgment in extending the period for negotiation of EPAs to January 2016. Negotiating the EPAs is a complicated process, involving a number of very complex and diverse issues which can impact heavily on our developing economies. It requires careful and thorough discussions, without the pressure of unreasonable deadlines», he stated. «We should also recall that earlier, the European Parliament had called on the European Commission to show flexibility», concluded Ibn Chambas.
According to the British NGO Traidcraft, as proposed by the EU, the EPAs fail to meet a number of challenges in the ACP countries such as high unemployment, vulnerability to external shocks, insufficient diversification of the economy, food insecurity and lack of investments in the agricultural production and in the infrastructures. This analysis is quite similar to that of former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa’s who said that Africans cannot continue to export indefinitely a very narrow range of primary products while importing processed goods, arguing that they rather should work hard to industrialize their economies. The trouble is that in their current configuration, EPAs are meant to maintain African states as eternal providers of raw materials and to erode their industrialization efforts. Moreover, the liberalization, combined to the EU’s refusal to dismantle agricultural exports subsidies, has already ruined African producers.
EU’s will to impose tariff liberalization on 80% of trade with ACP partners and abolish export duties will have a negative impact on the revenues of these states and also on the local producers. Traidcraft also deplores EU’s reluctance to allow its partners to adopt safeguard measures to protect their infant industries. The irony is that the EU which advocates free-trade with its weaker ACP partners and hails South Korea’s economic successes forgets to mention that this Asian country built its industrial empire behind trade protections.
Traidcraft criticizes the European will to liberalize the public procurement markets of the ACP countries, which on the contrary want to preserve them to encourage their domestic sector. The British NGO also observes that the model proposed by the European Commission is promoting the integration with Africa, to the detriment of progress in Africa’s regional integration. Within this context, the Kenyan Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Erastus Mwencha summarizes the opinion of many Africans when he declared «our advantage is regional integration. Can EPA help us to integrate our markets? If anything, it will stall us. I don’t think EPA is a priority for Africa».