Thursday, February 19, 2009

African states assert their willing participation in EPA talks

The vociferous campaign against the partnership agreements the European Union is seeking with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries has been shot down by its African partners, who say their bid to sell products in the EU market is being undermined.

The talks continue to be long and drawn out and many problems remain to be sorted out, the Zambian minister of Trade, Commerce and Industry, Felix Mutati, told SouthScan during a recent COMESA trade and investment conference in Brussels.

But he disagreed with civil society organizations that claimed that as a result of the dismantling of tariffs African economies could simply be wiped out by imports from Europe.

"Our markets are so small. If we begin to erect fences, we will not be able to grow. That is principle number one," he said at the meeting, held on November 18-19.

African countries needed an adjustment period to address the level of the industrial base. "The problem is to determine how long that takes. We must still agree on the schedule of the sensitive products", Mutati said.

"The list of sensitive products varies from one country to another. The harmonization is a challenge. So, inside our tent, we need to come up with a common list and that is where we are at the moment. We also have to understand clearly the rules of origin", he said.

Negotiations for the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the European Union and the 19 members of the Common market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) are likely to last at least until next July.

South Africa has been particularly antagonistic to the EPA negotiations, and defiance by other members of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and refusal to follow its lead has led to threats of a break-up of that organisation.

Relations with Botswana on the issue have already chilled, and SAs leadership within SADC, the Southern African Development Community, which is due to join with COMESA in a super trade bloc, is also being questioned.

COMESA has not either followed the hard line that the SA government has promoted and it expects that the full EPA, including both trade in goods and services, will be agreed, though not earlier than July next year, according to Mutati.

Negotiations still have to progress on market access, according to an official in COMESA's Brussels liaison office, Gervais Nkanagu.

Like Mutati and most of the 150 participants at the event, he believed that the NGOs engaged in the 'Stop EPAs' campaign were not doing any favours to those who promoted products from the region, such as Kenyan cut flowers or Ethiopian leather goods.

COMESA and blocs such as the East African Community (EAC), the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), signed an agreement with the European Commission on November 15 that puts €645 million from the 10th European Development Fund (EDF) at their disposal to support the regional integration process.

Some 85 percent of these EDF resources will support the implementation of customs unions and the creation of common internal markets and eventually monetary unions. The programme will also support the implementation of the regulatory framework, and provide financial support for the trade liberalisation process and its possible economic and fiscal costs. It will also aim at leveraging funds for trade-related infrastructure to depen regional integration.