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TRADE-AFRICA: Conflicting Views Over EPAs in French Government

Hilaire Avril

PARIS, Apr 24 2008 (IPS) - As it prepares to assume the presidency of the European Union in July one of the main issues on France’s agenda will be the economic partnership agreements (EPAs). But with less than three months to go, France’s official position concerning EPAs is still surprisingly unclear.

Officially, it is the European Commission sitting in Brussels which holds the mandate to negotiate EPAs with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries on behalf of all members of the European Union (EU).

‘‘This has been used as a convenient excuse for France not to take sides in the debate for or against EPAs,’’ says Jean-Denis Crola, responsible for Oxfam France’s economic justice campaign. Oxfam is an international group of non-governmental organisations fighting poverty.

‘‘States are hiding behind the European Commission, which puts unbearable pressure on ACP countries to sign these EPAs,’’ Crola says.

‘‘Officially, France’s policy towards ACP countries is in favour of their economic development. However, the current government has not voiced its official stance on a single occasion,’’ according to Crola.

‘‘The government has managed to sidestep the issue and to dodge direct questions on EPAs both in Lisbon (at the EU-Africa summit held in the Portuguese capital last December) and during President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to South Africa a month ago,’’ he adds.

According to an official at the ministry of foreign affairs, who spoke on condition of anonymity, France is eager to ‘‘ensure privileged access to European markets for ACP countries’ products, in compliance with World Trade Organisation rules’’.

However, under the formula currently favoured by Brussels, the liberalisation of trade in goods and services between the EU and ACP countries would be reciprocal, thus exposing ACP economies to direct and overwhelming competition from European exports and companies.

This issue, which most worries critics of the EPAs, has not yet been officially addressed by France.

‘‘It’s very hard to figure out what the government’s position is, as it hides behind the European Commission,’’ concurs Frédéric Viale of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transaction to Aid Citizens (known by its French acronym ATTAC). ATTAC is an NGO which promotes alternatives to neo-liberalism.

‘‘The matter is complicated by the fact that several French ministries are competent to address the issue of EPAs, and they appear to have conflicting views,’’ Viale says.

The ministry of foreign affairs, the ministry of agriculture and the ministry of foreign Trade all have a say in trade agreements.

‘‘According to our official contacts, the ministry of foreign trade thinks EPAs should allow for further deregulation and cover many more types of goods, whereas the ministry of foreign affairs sees a serious political problem with EPAs in their current form,’’ says Viale.

Crola confirms that the ministry of foreign affairs is more tepid than its trade counterpart when it comes to the EPAs: ‘‘Some officials have become more critical of the proposed agreements as they realise they are about to ‘lose Africa’.’’

‘‘After the council of EU development ministers, held last February, an official from the French ministry seemed to hint at a new policy more favourable to ACP countries’ development.

‘‘However, a couple of weeks later, it appeared the official was ‘promoted’ to the ministry for war veterans… We have not heard from the ministry (on this issue) since,’’ says Crola.

Now there seems to be growing concern at the ministry of foreign affairs over the recent food-related riots which affected several ACP countries.

According to the ministry official, ‘‘France would like to see the debate on EPAs include the issue of food security. In the current context of sustained and lasting increases in food prices, this should be an essential component of the sustainable development strategy we must develop with our partners, especially our African partners.’’

But if it is still unclear how and when the French presidency will arbitrate between these conflicting agendas, the ministry for agriculture’s position has always been unmistakably clear.

‘‘The ministry of agriculture has steadily been pushing for EPAs to be signed in their current form, as it wants to secure more markets for French products,’’ says Viale.

‘‘These debates within the government are not public, and dissenting voices are rarely heard. At the end of the day France’s position is aligned with that of the European Commission,’’ according to Viale.

The fact that French media largely ignores these issues does not help in shaping public opinion.

‘‘The issue of EPAs has never made the headlines in France,’’ says Viale. ‘‘We have a lot to achieve in terms of advocacy, in order for French public opinion to react to these matters and weigh in on the debate.’’

There has also been a contradiction between the Commission’s approach and the French ministry of foreign affairs’ approach.

Brussels has been able to apply a ‘‘divide and rule’’ approach to discussing EPAs. Bilateral negotiations between the EU and individual ACP countries are extraordinarily unbalanced, and developing countries can hardly resist the pressure to sign unfavourable treaties.

The French ministry of foreign affairs says, ‘‘France is especially committed to the regional integration efforts many ACP countries undertake and supports regional talks for negotiating EPAs.’’

However, this does not apply to Brussels’s strategy. ‘‘The EU aims at dividing ACP countries, by negotiating different agreements covering different goods and services for each country,’’ says Viale.

Crola was hopeful that some of these issues would be answered by European governments at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development meeting currently underway in Accra, Ghana.

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