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DEVELOPMENT: ACP States Feeling the Pinch of 2007 Trade Deadline

Noel King

KHARTOUM, Dec 6 2006 (IPS) - The fifth summit of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States will kick off on Thursday in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, amidst fierce speculation over the fate of trade agreements between the European Union (EU) and ACP nations.

The ACP Group currently comprises 79 countries, including 48 from sub-Saharan Africa. It was formed in 1975 with the initial intent of improving co-operation between member states and the EU (several ACP countries being former colonies of European nations). The group’s present objectives include integrating member states into the global economy and reducing poverty across the ACP, which includes many of the world’s most deprived countries.

Currently, the EU provides non-reciprocal trade benefits to ACP members – meaning that the states enjoy preferential access to European markets without being required to extend the same access to EU nations.

This situation is not compatible with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, however. As a result, it is being renegotiated through the creation of WTO-compliant Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that are scheduled to enter into force by the end of 2007.

The 2007 deadline is stipulated by Article 37 of the 2000 Cotonou Agreement – named for the Beninese capital where it was signed – which will govern ACP-EU relations until 2020.

But, EPA negotiations have proved difficult, with certain countries fearing that their economies will not be able to withstand competition from European goods for years to come.

“ACP countries are not yet ready to trade on an equal basis with the EU,” said Ali Yousif, Sudan’s Ambassador to the EU. “It is like a boxing contest where you have a heavyweight fighting a lightweight. The European side will definitely be the winner.”

In light of this, EPAs are set to be a key issue at the two-day summit between ACP heads of state.

“The negotiations of the EPAs are the backbone and cornerstone of (the summit),” Ahmed Hussein, economic counselor at the Sudanese embassy in Brussels, told IPS Tuesday on the sidelines of ministerial meetings being held ahead of the summit.

ACP nations claim the 2007 deadline does not give them enough time to discuss the EPAs.

“The ACP nations want to extend Article 37 of the Cotonou Agreement for a further duration,” said Hussein. “They need additional time to think. That is the debate here.”

Noted Yousif: “The one year that is left is not enough for all the regions to prepare and sign agreements and make informed decisions.”

“Some countries want three years, some want four or six,” he told IPS.

Lesotho’s minister of foreign affairs, Monyane Moleleki, made similar observations during remarks delivered Sunday in Khartoum.

“All regions are behind schedule in terms of negotiations with the European Union,” he noted. “How do we move forward with this matter?”

Building consensus on the best way ahead amongst 79 countries is no easy task.

“The West Africans, Caribbean and Pacific have different views (on how) to create an EPA,” said Malawi’s ambassador to the EU, Brian Bowler. “The challenge now is to try and synchronise our joint approach.”

He also emphasised that while preferential trade agreements may help African nations export goods to Europe, trade within the continent is not what it should be.

“Today it costs more to ship a container 200 kilometres (in Africa) than it does to export to Europe. Those are areas in which we, as Africans, have to help ourselves,” said Bowler.

“The challenge of developing Africa is difficult, and all the money in Europe will not change that.”

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