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Q&A: “Impose an Embargo on the EPA Talks”

Patricia Handley interviews YASH TANDON, Ugandan political economist (Part 1)

CAPE TOWN, Mar 29 2010 (IPS) - Respected Ugandan political economist Yash Tandon has added his voice to the call for a moratorium on the negotiations between African countries and the European Union (EU) on the trade deals known as economic partnership agreements (EPAs).

Yash Tandon: African countries should first create their own regional common market before opening to the EU and others. Credit:

Yash Tandon: African countries should first create their own regional common market before opening to the EU and others. Credit:

This follows the call by Ablassé Ouedraogo, former minister of foreign affairs of Burkina Faso and former deputy director of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), that the EPA negotiations between West Africa and the EU should be suspended.

Tandon now works as senior advisor to the Geneva-based South Centre intergovernmental think tank for developing countries after serving as the centre’s executive director.

He visited Cape Town as speaker at the 86th Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust Open Dialogue where he described the situation with the EPA talks as “a turning point for Africa”.

Q: What do you mean by the destructive course of the EPAs? A: The EPAs are driven mostly by European interests. It is an asymmetrical negotiation … driven mainly by considerations of power exercised by the EU and by weak African governments that are dependent on economic aid from Europe and access to markets in Europe. It’s a very unequal relationship.

Secondly, the effect of the negotiations at the moment is total fragmentation of Africa. One example: in Southern Africa, South Africa has refused to sign the interim EPA but it has been signed by Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique.

These countries will be able to import products from Europe which could then, through the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), find entry into South Africa.

South Africa could take action to prevent this but (such action) will dismantle SACU. I hope that South Africa does not do it because it (will) simply implement what the Europeans want. The Europeans want to divide and conquer Africa.

The second example is that countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe, which were the founding members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), are not even part of the negotiations with Europe within the SADC framework.

They are negotiating within the East African (bloc). Here, again, is the breakdown of SADC and creation of a new bloc including Zimbabwe and Zambia that is different from the regional groupings that Africans had agreed to in the Abuja Treaty.

Q: What is the alternative? A: We must do this in two steps. First, we must put an embargo on negotiations with the EU until we have our house in order. As long as the EU goes on putting pressure on us and forcing individual countries to sign separately, we cannot even think of an alternative. We have time. Europe does not have time.

Then I suggest that the heads of state of SADC and East African countries meet for half a day and mandate their trade ministers to negotiate a COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa)-like customs union that should include COMESA, SADC and the East African Community to begin putting in place what they had agreed in 2008.

They should lay out a time-scale (for harmonising) their customs tariffs and complex issues like rules of origin, facilitation of trade and transportation and information networks.

This will take time but they should work out agreements on these issues in order that these countries first drop barriers to trade and investments and movement of people amongst themselves before they open up to the outside world. And by outside world I mean also China, India, Brazil and the U.S.

Our parliaments must take their responsibility seriously. None of the parliaments in our countries is sufficiently aware of what is happening.

How ironical that our parliamentarians can spend a lot of time talking on local issues but are oblivious to issues of a global nature that can have serious and irrevocable – except at great cost – consequences for our countries and the region.

The committees in parliaments that look at trade and treaty issues should compel our executives to put these treaties before parliaments to be fully debated, in view of the public and the media, in order for them to understand what the implications are.

And if they think that the implications are negative for our people, as in fact is the case, they should refuse to ratify these.

Q: What is the feasibility of your alternative? A: It depends on the political will of the leadership and the extent to which they can be pressurised by the people and those economic interests that will be hurt by the EPA. It’s a political question.

In our countries there are export-sector interests that want to enter into EPAs because they want access to the European market.

But (small and medium industries and businesses) will lose out: small clothing firms; firms that provide food domestically; small manufacturing sectors that produce goods and services for the local, domestic or regional market.

These firms are not so much involved in the negotiations and are unaware that they will be hurt very badly if we open up markets to Europe.

It is feasible to reverse the situation provided three things happen. First, provided there is political will on the part of our leadership. Second, provided our people and parliaments are able to pressurise our governments to be sensitive to the domestic needs of our countries.

Third, provided those commercial and business interests in our countries that depend on the domestic and regional market are mobilised to put their case, as opposed to the case of the export-oriented industries.

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