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TRADE: EU ''Rushing'' EPAs Lest African States Change Their Minds

Hilaire Avril

PARIS, Jul 27 2008 (IPS) - Brussels is tempted to skip the translation of the interim economic partnership agreements (EPAs) into the 23 official European languages because of concerns that some African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries may change their minds about signing the final agreements.

An internal European Commission document dated July 17, 2008, seen by IPS, reveals that ‘‘translating and legally verifying the languages of the interim EPAs that were initialled last year is proving more burdensome and time-consuming than originally foreseen.

‘‘With a view to speeding up the signing of all interim agreements in 2008 we suggest, exceptionally, to move away from the traditional way of establishing authentic texts in all official languages at the time of signature while agreeing to adopt them at a later stage,’’ it adds.

According to the document, the Commission is concerned that translating the bulky interim EPAs into the Union’s 23 official languages will cause delays. The Commission has adopted the position that, without the EPAs, a trade regime is perpetuated with the ACP countries that is not compliant with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

‘‘The Commission has estimated that if we follow the generally accepted approach prior to signature, the process could well take us past Easter 2009. Such delays would have repercussions regarding WTO notification and legal security,’’ it says.

But beyond the time and effort needed to translate thousands of pages of trade agreements into 23 languages, it appears the Commission has a more far-reaching concern.

Translating the interim EPAs ‘‘may also increase political risks that certain ACP countries change their mind and decide not to sign the interim EPAs’’, the document explains.

By cutting short the time European Union (EU) members have to debate in their national languages whether they support EPAs, the Commission hopes that the agreements will be signed by the European Council before African, Caribbean and Pacific countries are able to amend their position.

The European Council consists of the heads of state or governments of the European Union and the president of the Commission.

Should the European Council indeed decide to sign the EPAs in their current form, the Commission would then be able to notify these interim agreements to the WTO. Once notified, EPAs would be much harder to renegotiate for ACP countries.

According to Jean-Denis Crola, responsible for the economic justice campaign with Oxfam France, ‘‘from day one, the Commission has used the issue of conformity to WTO rules as an excuse to cover up the real reasons it wants the sgreements to be signed as soon as possible.

‘‘This is not the real issue, as all commercial relations between the EU and ACP countries have been WTO-compatible since January 1. Even those countries that did not sign interim EPAs are covered by the Everything But Arms trade regime,’’ Crola says.

‘‘The real motivation behind the Commission’s approach is the fear that some countries may change their position and reject any form of agreement,’’ he adds.

Under the pretence of saving time, the proposed strategy is in fact to rush through the approval process and set in stone interim commitments from ACP countries.

In order for member states to be fully informed of the matters on which the Commission requests their approval, the European Union’s usual protocol is to translate treaties into all member states’ official languages.

In a 2005 press release, the Commission’s own directorate general for translation acknowledged that ‘‘the scale of [the EU’s] multilingual regime makes it unique in the world, and to some the extra work it creates for its institutions may seem at first sight to outweigh the advantages.’’

However, the directorate general for translation defended this policy as a prerequisite for democratic debate.

‘‘There are special reasons for it. The Union passes laws directly binding on its citizens and companies, and as a matter of simple natural justice they and their courts must have a version of the laws they have to comply with in a language they can understand,’’ it concludes.

The Commission document specifies that this is an exceptional departure from the protocol, ‘‘which was already tested in the Passenger Name Records Agreement signed by the EU and the US last year’’. This is an agreement on the exchange of passenger name records.

This document’s strategy is in direct opposition to the approach Christine Taubira, a French Member of Parliament representing Guyana, recently advocated in a report on EPAs commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It offered recommendations aiming at restoring confidence in a negotiating process which has often been marred by accusations of bad faith from both the EU and ACP countries.

One of these recommendations urges the EU to lift all linguistic ambiguities in order to foster increased clarity of the EPAs. It insisted that being informed in one’s native language is a basic principle of international law.

France, which is currently holding the rotating presidency of the EU, seems to have agreed that this recommendation was an essential step in a successful and equitable negotiation process.

However, as the recent spat between Sarkozy and EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson has shown, the European position on the EPAs is still far from unwavering.

Sarkozy attacked Mandelson for pushing EPAs that will lead to a reduction in EU agricultural production and for EPA negotiations that ''influenced'' the Irish vote against the EU reform treaty.

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