EU blackmailing poor countries?

T he European Commission and a grouping of countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) are no nearer an agreement on trade liberalisation after their latest effort. EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson reiterated the EU threat at a meeting last week that the ACP countries would lose their preferential access to EU markets if Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) were not signed by the end of the year. That is the expiry date of the waiver the WTO has granted to extend existing preferential tariffs under an agreement that the EU and the ACP countries signed in Cotonou in the West African country Benin in 2000. The ACP countries have asked the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, to guarantee that trade flows will not be disrupted after 2007.

At last week’s meeting they agreed to pursue efforts to implement preparatory measures to complete the negotiations with EU help, without committing themselves to a deadline. The meeting produced no joint conclusions. The 79 ACP countries in six regions (the Caribbean, four African regions and the Pacific) seem divided on the urgency of an agreement. “Our priority is an agreement that corresponds to our interests,” said Gilles G Hounkpatin, trade representative of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). “Our economies will be affected by the EPAs, and we want a global view first. If you negotiate, you cannot just impose a date.”

The Caribbean countries, on the other hand, say they are ready to sign an “ambitious” trade agreement this year. “We have been working flat out and we have no other choice than to give it this kind of energy,” Caribbean regional negotiator Junior Lodge told journalists. But the Caribbean negotiator believes Europe does have an offensive interest in opening up ACP markets for its agricultural exports. All ACP regions agree on the need for transition periods, up to 25 years, for opening their markets to European imports, and the option of automatic safeguard measures against an unexpected upsurge in EU imports. They also want to know how the Commission is going to spend the 2 billion euro it has promised to make the ACP economies more competitive.

European development NGOs have dubbed the European negotiating strategy “blackmail”. They refer to a review carried out by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, which indicates that the developing countries lack the institutional capacity to implement a free trade deal with the EU. “European ministers could simply instruct their customs services to maintain preferential tariffs in order to avoid that fruit or flowers from Africa lie rotting in European harbours in 2008,” trade expert Marc Maes from the Belgian development NGO said. According to Maes, Europe wants to stick to the WTO rulebook because it expects its counterparts to apply the same high standards in other negotiations.

The EU stands by its argument that EPAs are a far better deal for poor countries than Cotonou. “The ACP countries risk being marooned on an island of commodity trade,” Stephen Adams, spokesperson for Peter Mandelson said. “Trade preferences created a system in which there is no incentive for countries to diversify their economies. We guarantee that market access will be maintained: this is not a bad deal.” — IPS