Yesterday, TOP and the African All Party Parliamentary Group co-hosted a panel of experts to discuss the topic “Economic Partnership Agreements: The Final Countdown”. In the run up to the EU-Africa Summit taking place next week (2nd April), Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) have been dominating the discussions. EPA negotiations have been in progress for over 10 years, but are being brought to a sudden end after the EU announced a deadline of 1st October 2014. We were joined by speakers from the DFID/BIS Joint Trade Policy Unit, ECPDM and SOAS.

EPAs are trade agreements meant to safeguard African countries’ preferential access to EU markets, which will help enable them to integrate into the world economy and achieve sustainable poverty reduction through economic growth. EPAs are changing this preferential access from non-reciprocal to reciprocal access meaning that African countries will be required to open up their markets to EU imports. However, many Africa countries remain unhappy with the terms of the agreements and are in danger of losing their preferential access to the EU market if they fail to comply with the 1st October deadline with potentially drastic consequences.

Adaeze Igboemeka, Head of Trade and Development Policy and Programmes at DFID began by giving us an update on the current state of play. While talks with the Pacific region have stalled completely, negotiations with West Africa have been completed and are expected to be formally approved this week. Southern African negotiations will resume in the next couple of weeks and East Africa is holding technical talks this week to discuss a few outstanding issues. For Africa, the signs are generally positive that negotiations are moving in the right direction, but the 1st October deadline still looms – there are 7 non-LDCs who are at genuine risk of losing their preferential access, which could have very damaging effects on their jobs markets and competitiveness.

The EU is Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest trading partner, with total trade between the two regions exceeding $200bn in 2012. The benefits of market access for Africa are obvious and these are generous asymmetric agreements – giving 100% duty-free quota-free access to the EU market in return for gradual liberalisation over 15-20 years. The recently agreed ECOWAS EPA allows those countries to liberalise 75% of their trade over 20 years.

Dr San Bilal, Senior Executive and the Head of Economic Transformation and Trade Programme Editor at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), then took the discussion back to its roots. Why EPAs? There were introduced firstly to comply with WTO rules and secondly to support regional integration in Africa and the economic development of ACP countries. But after over 10 years of negotiations, the development attractiveness is simply not there for most of the ACP – they remain engaged simply because they want to retain EU market access.

This poses the political problem arising from LDC members who do not need an EPA to retain their market access – with differing motivations, there is a chance that EPAs are dividing African regions rather than boosting their integration process. More political will is required to bring these negotiations to a conclusion – the current lack of will is extremely worrying given what is at stake. It is highly unlikely that any region will have finished negotiating, signing and ratifying an EPA before the October 1st deadline, leaving a worrying period of hiatus to come – this should be taken beyond trade negotiators to high-level political discussion to resolve the remaining issues.

The political dimension of the negotiations was expanded on by Dr Michael Amoah, a foreign policy expert and Research Associate from SOAS, who said the African governments are being very tactical. They are seeing just how flexible they can make these agreements and come out with the least possible demands on them. But the main problem is that there is no cross-continent consensus – within each economic community there are differing priorities and concerns. Some countries will benefit more than others and some will lose out and this internal struggle is being played out within the arena of the EPA talks.

Michael suggested that the example set by ECOWAS could well serve as a useful template for the other regions. They signed a development plan alongside their EPA to be followed by their member states and the EU over the next 20 years – such a set up could help to alleviate the concerns that these negotiations are simply about Europe protecting its own interests.

The general discussion continued along this theme, with comments regarding the potential dislike that Africans might feel towards the ACP classification, which is sometimes viewed as neo-colonial. Many feel that, despite DG Trade’s shifting attitude over the course of the 10 years of talks, the EU remains patronising – telling Africa what is best for its own development. It is clear that the EU must show appreciation for African political situations and be as flexible as possible. This is much broader than just EPAs; the political relationship between the EU and African countries is at stake.

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