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TRADE: France Seeks Greater Flexibility with Africa

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, May 24 2008 (IPS) - France, the forthcoming holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, has asked that the bloc display greater flexibility in talks aimed at reaching free trade accords with Africa.

The EU’s executive, the European Commission, has been arguing that African, Caribbean and Pacific countries must remove at least 80 percent of the tariffs they levy on imports within a 15-year period as a result of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that are currently being negotiated. While the Commission has been undertaking the negotiations on behalf of all 27 EU countries, France is now seeking that the trade liberalisation it is demanding should be less extensive, and phased in over a longer timeframe.

IPS has confirmed that French government officials recently contacted the Commission’s Brussels headquarters, requesting that it display greater understanding for Africa’s concerns than it has to date.

France, which begins its six-month stint at the EU’s helm at the beginning of July, has argued that the unrest sparked by soaring food prices in many poor countries highlights why particular attention should be paid to food and agricultural issues in the EPAs.

Despite being one of the most vigorous defenders of how the EU financially supports its own farmers, France has claimed that unequal competition in Africa between subsidised imports and locally grown produce should be avoided. Imports of cheap food can be beneficial for urban consumers, the French officials said, but they can have devastating consequences for African agriculture, which generally receives little or no support from the state.

As well as advocating flexibility, the French have asked that assistance should be given to help Africa build up the capacity of its agriculture by training farmers and boosting their access to credit, and by providing irrigation to drought-prone land. EU governments and the Commission have promised to give 2 billion euros (2.75 billion dollars) in annual ‘aid for trade’ to poor countries by 2010.

The Paris government has also tasked Christiane Taubira, a deputy in the French national assembly, with drawing up a report on how the EPAs can be used to promote closer ties between regions in Africa. Her report is likely to be finalised by mid-June.

Several African governments have complained that moves by the EU late last year to negotiate trade agreements with countries on an individual basis had undermined efforts to build up structures for regional economic cooperation on the continent. Mamadou Diap, Senegal’s commerce minister, recently suggested that African governments needed to be more united. “We go to Brussels and we have over 80 African ministers who are individually holding sessions with the EU on the same thing,” he said. “How can we make meaningful progress with such an attitude?”

Anti-poverty activists have welcomed the stance being taken by France.

“For once the French government is seeking to address the causes of the food crisis: how trade rules are unfair,” said Jean-Denis Crola from Oxfam France. “The roots of the problem lie in the trade relations between the EU and the ACP.”

But Peter Mandelson, the European commissioner for trade, has so far ruled out taking a more conciliatory approach towards ACP governments. He has maintained that scrapping 80 percent of tariffs is necessary in order to comply with rules on trade agreements between poor and rich countries. Such rules have been set by the World Trade Organisation.

In an opinion piece published in the International Herald Tribune May 22, Mandelson said: “Despite the caricature, the most protected farm markets in the world by far are not in the developed world, but among developing countries. Sometimes these tariffs protect subsistence farmers. But often they stand in the way of the creation of regional farm markets that could spur greater agricultural output and productivity.”

Marc Maes, a trade specialist with the Belgian anti-poverty group 11.11.11, described the hard-line tone adopted by Mandelson towards some of the world’s poorest countries as “incomprehensible”.

Maes argued that no EPA should enter into force until assessments of their likely implications are carried out by reputable bodies that are independent of the EU institutions.

In total, 78 ACP countries have been undertaking trade negotiations with the EU. So far, just 35 of these have signed EPAs. And in most cases, the agreements reached have been officially labelled ‘interim’, as the Commission wishes to transform them into more comprehensive trade liberalisation packages.

Grégoire Thery from the International Federation for Human Rights (known by its French acronym, FIDH) said that the potential effects of the agreements on Africa’s ability to feed its own citizens needed to be thoroughly analysed. There is currently no scrutiny, he pointed out, of how trade accords signed between the EU and foreign countries affect rights enshrined in international law.

EU governments, he added, are legally required to respect the right to food, the right of freedom from hunger, and the right to economic development. Such rights could be violated, many campaigners believe, if small farmers go out of business – and are consequently unable to provide for their families – because they cannot cope with pressure from subsidised imports.

“Europe has obligations to give us evidence that trade agreements won’t lead to the denial of human rights,” said Thery. “The EU is not able to give this evidence because the EU does not have the tool to assess the potential impact of trade agreements.”

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