Thursday, February 19, 2009

EU Trade Commissioner Pushes for Economic Integration with African Nations

EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton visited several nations in Southern Africa last week, where she held talks with key governmental leaders. Although the general purpose of the trip was to promote bilateral and regional trade relations, Ashton also hoped to make progress on a potential Economic Partnership Agreement, or EPA, between members of the South African Development Community (SADC) and the European Union.

“I want to engage with Southern African countries so that we can all gain more from our economic relationship,” Ashton said.

Within the 15-member SADC, seven nations compose the ‘SADC EPA’ group that is in negotiations toward a partnership deal with the EU. This group, which comprises Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and South Africa, hopes to ultimately create a free trade area between the two blocs.

Negotiations between Brussels and the SADC group have been ongoing since 2004, and an interim EPA was signed between Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and the EU in 2007. However, that agreement left many issues unresolved, namely the reconciliation of various trade relationships between the EU and various African nations, some of which have signed their own agreements with Brussels.

Absent from the 2007 interim agreement was SADC member South Africa, which signed its own trade and cooperation agreement with Brussels ten years ago.

But the EU is still keen to expand trade relations with Africa’s largest economy.

“I am particularly committed to discussing South Africa’s concerns over our Economic Partnership Agreement,” said Ashton, who spent two days of her trip in Cape Town.

Further complicating negotiations is the status of Angola, which has been granted permission to join the 2007 interim agreement, but which already enjoys substantial EU market access as a Least Developed Country.

The Southern African Customs Union, a four-nation bloc within the SADC, was evenly split over whether to join the 2007 pact with the EU. Both South Africa and Namibia refused initially, but Namibia eventually signed in the closing hours of discussion in December 2007 on the condition that future negotiations would address its concerns regarding service liberalisation.

Namibia’s concern echoes the worries of some African countries, which are hesitant to agree to liberalisation of services. Brussels insists such easing of restrictions will create predictable and stable conditions for European investment.

During the visit, ministers and high-level officials from Namibia as well as other SADC nations got a chance to voice these concerns, planning to meet with Commissioner Ashton over the course of three days in Botswana and South Africa.