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TRADE: EC Manufactured Bogus ‘African Business’ Support for EPAs

Julio Godoy

BRUSSELS, May 7 2009 (IPS) - The exposure of the European Commission's (EC) manufacturing of African business support for the contentious economic partnership agreements (EPAs) has so far elicited little action by members of the European Parliament.

This is despite these revelations being acknowledged as ‘‘scandalous’’.

On March 23 the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) revealed that it was the EC that in fact orchestrated what was officially called ‘‘African business-driven support’’ for the EPAs. The CEO is an independent watchdog group working to expose the influence enjoyed by corporations in European Union (EU) policy making.

Based on EC internal documents obtained under EU information disclosure regulations, the CEO revealed that the EC trade authorities created groups to ‘‘represent’’ the African continent’s business community with the sole aim to conjure up an impression of African business support for the EPAs.

These EC internal documents – minutes of negotiations, internal e-mail communication and the like – also show that the EC trade authorities drafted, in cooperation with the European employers’ federation BusinessEurope, a pro-EPAs position for the EC-created ‘‘EU-Africa Business Forum’’.

‘‘(Authentic) African businesses were over-ridden by this political joint venture between European big business and the (European) Commission,’’ the CEO concluded.

Now, more than a month later, almost nobody in the European Parliament has reacted to the revelations.

IPS contacted numerous members of the European Parliament to get comment. Practically all parliamentarians refused to talk. Some said they were not aware of the EC’s actions.

Helmuth Markov, who represents the German Left Party in the European Parliament and chairs the parliament’s committee on international trade, told IPS that he knew nothing about the EC's orchestration of ‘‘African business support’’ for the EPAs.

Only after IPS provided him with the EC internal papers, Markov reacted. ‘‘The commission's behaviour is simply scandalous,’’ Markov acknowledged in an interview with IPS.

He undertook to investigate where the financial resources came from to pay for the ‘‘buying of African votes. Do they come from the European development budget or from the provisions for trade?"

Markov also assured IPS that he would ask European trade commissioner Catherine Ashton to explain this ‘‘scandalous behaviour’’.

But Markov and the European Parliament's influence over the EPA negotiations is limited. The EPAs must enjoy the European Parliament's approval to come into force but the European sanctioning process does not give the parliament the option of modifying the treaties.

Moreover, declared Martin Koehler, an expert on international trade negotiations counselling the Green Party at the European Parliament, the chances that the European Parliament will reject the EPAs are ‘‘zero’’.

He is right: two days after the CEO revealed the EC’s subterfuge the parliament approved the EPAs with the Caribbean countries.

Koehler told IPS that: ‘‘For most people working for or around the EC, (the EC’s underhanded actions) come as no surprise. The EC has been behaving this way for years.’’

Even the CEO sees the relative lack of reaction as evidence of how accustomed the powers that be have become to such scandals.

Pia Eberhardt, the CEO activist who led the research into the EC internal documents, told IPS that ‘‘most people in Brussels, at non-governmental organisations, the European Parliament and so on, know that such things have been happening for years.

‘‘The EC behaviour in promoting the EPAs, however scandalous, is seen as business as usual,’’ Eberhardt told IPS.

The EPAs are a controversial EC project aimed at creating a free-trade zone between the EU and the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries known as the ACP.

The EPAs have been criticised by economic and development experts, from Europe and from other continents, because their emphasis on the opening of ACP markets is predicted to have devastating effects.

Even the EC recently admitted that its own experience suggests ‘‘that free trade agreements between a large market like the EU and small economies are not easily sustainable and often lead to a deficit for the weaker partners.’’

Regarding the CEO’s revelations, the internal EC papers show that the initial impulse for the manufacturing of African support for the EPAs came from Ivano Casella, director general for trade at the EC. Casella is the main EC delegate at the EPAs negotiations.

In an e-mail dated Aug 1, 2005, Casella asked Nick Charalambides, a former EC trade official, to bring business groups on the African side to concoct support for the EPAs. Charalambides worked at the time as business consultant in Botswana.

‘‘This is a lobbying process; it means that there is no legal obligation for negotiators to take agreed and representative joint business positions on board,’’ Casella wrote to Charalambides.

‘‘The better the(se positions) are formulated and targeted, the greater the incentive for politicians and bureaucrats to integrate them. It is (almost) a full time job!,’’ Casella added.

In another e-mail, Casella asked his Botswana contact ‘‘to ‘test’’’ the idea of a bogus business forum with his business contacts.

According to Casella's message, the purpose of the forum was to offer business executives a unique input into the EU’s trade negotiations with the Southern African Development Community by enabling them to ‘‘speak to governments with one voice’’.

Casella wrote that such strategy promised to be more effective ‘‘than each side acting on its own – often with conflicting demands’’.

Despite the initiative emanating from the EC, it dubbed this ‘‘African business-driven" support. As Eberhardt indicated, ‘‘the Business Trade Forum EU-Southern Africa was in fact Casella's brainchild, who was keen to have a bi-regional business voice backing up his own position in the EPA negotiations.’’

In an e-mail, Casella confirmed that the EC had previously used such orchestration of support from abroad for European trade policies. ‘‘It is not easy… but (the African business representatives) have to learn,’’ Casella boasted in the message.

He added: ‘‘It has worked in (the South American trade zone) Mercosur (where negotiators effectively took on board some of the MEBF specific requests on trade facilitation and investment), so (there’s) no reason it shouldn’t work here.’’

The MEBF, for Mercosur European Business Forum, is a group formed in 1997 at the initiative of the German chamber of industry and which had as aim to promote the European corporations' ideas on free trade in the Mercosur area.

Other EC internal documents show that Casella also made sure that the EU delegation in Botswana provided business participants with travel funds for a preparatory conference in Brussels in September 2005. Casella also helped draft the paper which laid out the structure and core objectives of the future forum.

Later, on Sept 26, 2006, Casella asked the European employers’ federation BusinessEurope to take the lead in fostering more bi-regional initiatives as the ‘‘driving force of our regional EPAs’’. He promised his support for these initiatives.

For Markov, by so doing, Casella's behaviour constitutes ‘‘a flagrant transgression of his duties. He also has abused the citizens' confidence, both in Europe and in Africa.’’

Apart from the EPAs’ developmental implications, these trade deals have also been controversial because of the asymmetrical power relations in the negotiating process.

Oxfam compared the EPAs to ‘‘putting a schoolboy (the ACP) in a boxing ring with a heavyweight pro (the EU). Even if the schoolboy is given a few extra points on the scorecard, the basic rules of boxing are the same for each, and the boy will get beaten up every time.’’

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