Sunday, 14 October 2007

Pressure on EU for flexibility in EPA negotiations is growing

Oxfam International has welcomed the decision of 5 October by Ministers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Mauritania to officially request an extension of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations into 2008. Oxfam believes that the European Union (EU) must use this occasion to show its commitment to the spirit of the Cotonou partnership, and continue talks until all sides agree to a deal that will boost development. In the extra-ordinary Ministerial in Abidjan, Ministers concluded that the EU’s latest proposal, which will still require extensive liberalisation, does not address the development needs of the region. They were very clear that it is not possible to conclude an ‘inclusive’ and ‘balanced’ agreement this year and called on the European Union to maintain the Cotonou trade regime to allow negotiations to continue.

According to Ablasse Ouedraogo, special adviser to West Africa’s chief negotiator, “West Africa has been negotiating in good faith, but as our Ministers stated in the declaration, it is now absolutely clear that we can’t reach an agreement by the end of the year. We call upon Europe to enter into a constructive dialogue with us, providing the necessary time to forge an agreement that will enhance regional integration and support West Africa to take advantage of globalization.” The position of the West African Ministers reflects the concerns of producers and civil society organizations. “The African Industrial Association (AIA) welcomes the ECOWAS decision,” said David Thual, Adviser to the AIA president. “The AIA urges negotiators to take advantage of the forthcoming months to define an EPA, that takes into account the difficulties African industry is facing and offers real development prospects”.

In the past two weeks, events in other ACP regions have followed a similar pattern. In the Caribbean, extraordinary Ministerial talks with the European Commission ended without agreement. The European Commission and the Pacific have agreed to try and sign a deal concerning only the trade in goods by November, leaving other areas for negotiation in 2008. However, even this is unlikely to be achieved as many areas of disagreement remain between the two parties. Talks in East Africa remain fraught with difficulties and exporters are getting anxious. To avert disruption of trade the Seychelles has asked for immediate entry into the preferential scheme that many Latin American countries use (GSP+), which would give nearly the same access to the EU market as the current Cotonou scheme. Other East African countries have asked the EU for ‘interim’ measures to be put in place to continue negotiations in 2008.

So far, the European position remains that a free trade agreement is needed by the end of Dec 2007 – even if it only covers goods. If not, tariffs on ACP exports will be increased. The challenge now is for Europe to show more meaningful flexibility. Eric Hazard, Oxfam’s West Africa Campaign Manager said, “These events send a strong political message demanding action from Europe. European countries need to listen to ACP regions, re-orient talks towards development and urgently take steps to ensure that discussions on all issues can continue into 2008.”

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