Less than three months from the December 31, 2007 deadline initially established for signing the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) to define a scheme for implementing free trade areas between the European Union and six regional blocs of ACP countries1, the negotiations are far from being concluded. Most of the ACP countries reject the proposals of the EU, which is under pressure from all sides to grant the WTO an extension for the talks. This casts serious and justified doubt on the WTO rules.
In Ouagadougou on September 27, International Stop EPA Day, Bassiaka Dao, President of the Confédération Paysanne du Faso farmers' union, laid out the demands of Burkina Faso's agricultural producers:
"We are calling for a waiver and for [negotiations] to be extended, enabling all players to bring themselves up to standard, implement our common agricultural policy, build our regional agricultural market, complete regional integration within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)2 and modernize the entire productive sector; when that happens we will be able to enter a competitive market."
It was not just civil society, represented primarily by European and African NGOs and African farmers' associations, that mobilized on September 27 to call for the extension of negotiations.
The World Bank also expressed its concerns about signing an agreement in December 2007. Speaking with EU representatives, officials from the international financial institution asked the Europeans to consider prolonging talks with the ACP countries to ensure that the EPAs are implemented under favorable conditions.
Speaking before the African Development Bank, Secretary General of La Francophonie Abdou Diouf also mentioned his reservations about signing the EPAs before the end of the year. "I won't hide my concern about seeing our States sign these agreements while many of them are in a position of evident weakness," he said. He also called attention to the fragility of regional integration in certain parts of Africa.
The day after International Stop EPA Day, a decision by the Competitiveness Council3 added fuel to the fire. Ministers meeting in Brussels formally decided to end, on October 1, 2009, the Sugar Protocol that has guaranteed preferential prices and access to the European market for 18 sugar-producing ACP countries since 1975. While it does seem that preferential access to European markets will be part of the EPAs, "we cannot pay guaranteed prices for ACP producers when we no longer guarantee prices for our own [European] producers" following the reform of the EU sugar regime, said Mariann Fischer Boel, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development.
The demands are being made most strongly in West Africa. Meeting in a special session on Friday, October 5 in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, the Ministerial Monitoring Committee on the EPA negotiations (MMC)4 officially requested that the close of negotiations be postponed. Committee members "noted that the large number of outstanding assignments [...] does not, objectively, according to both parties, allow for the conclusion of a comprehensive, balanced agreement that takes the concerns of West Africa into account."
In particular, the MMC believes that the agreement drafting process is not far enough along and that the conditions for implementation and for financing accompanying measures for the EPAs are not in place. It does not believe the region is ready to formulate an offer of access to its goods and services markets, since the list of "sensitive products" that could be exempted from liberalization has not been finalized. The MMC also underscores that the modalities for compensating for fiscal losses related to trade liberalization and the EPA monitoring and evaluation mechanism have not yet been defined.
For this reason, the MMC "urges" the EU to submit a request to the WTO to extend the current waiver. This would "maintain the current Cotonou regime so as not to penalize exports from the region, particularly for non-LDC countries,"5 said Mohamed Ibn Chambas, President of the ECOWAS Commission. He added, "The EPA seeks to provide us with a new, secure legal framework for trade and, most importantly, to enable us to conclude a good, fair, equitable and mutually beneficial agreement that meets the aspirations for economic and social development of our countries and our peoples."
In an interview with Reuters on October 8, Peter Power, spokesman for EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, responded, "Our waiver expires at the end of this year and we need a successor regime by the end of this year." Over the past few months, Peter Mandelson himself has repeated that it is unthinkable to consider requesting a new waiver from the WTO, particularly because the other developing WTO member countries would not accept a continuation of the preferential UE-ACP agreements. However, Ablasse Ouedraogo, special advisor to Mohamed Ibn Chambas, said "We will [...] have the time to continue the negotiations before the WTO can take action (against us)”, adding that "it should take less than two years [to finalize negotiations.]"
If a comprehensive agreement could not be reached, the European Commission was hoping that West Africa would agree to an "EPA-light," proposed in late September by Peter Mandelson and Louis Michel, EU Commissioner for Development. This watered-down, "WTO-compatible" agreement would be refocused on trade in goods and would represent a step toward drawing up a complete document.
However, the West African representatives argued that the skimmed down EPA "will not ensure development and is based on the most controversial aspect of the negotiations: market liberalization," and that it is not negotiable before October 30, the deadline for a January 1, 2008 application. This position was reaffirmed in Brussels on October 18 at a meeting between high-level officials from the European Commission and the West African negotiating bodies.
Arguing that maintaining the trade preferences currently enjoyed by ACP countries in the European market would not be based on "any legal foundation" and would "undermine our international credibility," the latest meeting of the European Commission also proposed negotiating an agreement with "a sub-regional configuration" that would not include all of the countries in the West Africa region. The African representatives responded that "an EPA in stages, as proposed by the European party is not feasible in the established timeframe, and will not bring about development," while reaffirming "the unity and solidarity of its States in the framework of regional integration" and rejecting "any attempt to divide the region."
In an opinion piece published in the French daily Libération on October 16,6 which was the 27th annual World Food Day, Jean Ziegler, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, also condemned economic partnership agreements that he believes could have "disastrous consequences and thrust the most destitute into even further starvation." He believes that the "contents of these trade agreements, as proposed by the European Union, lead us to predict dramatic consequences for the ACP countries, as placing such unequal economies into competition so often hurts the poorest. In the agricultural sector, competition with European products will impoverish many farmers in the South." Ziegler reminds Europe's leaders that "peoples’ rights must take precedence over all other considerations."
The European Union's reaction illustrates the problems with bilateral and multilateral international negotiations: the fundamental strategic arguments, both those advanced by civil society and those championed by specialists and renowned institutions, are relegated to the background, behind legal "imperatives" decreed by a small handful of influential officials. There is excessive focus on the joint deadline for the six regional blocs, and it seems that the EPAs’ success lies solely in meeting this deadline. At this time, the technical measures implemented have become the goals to be pursued.
The EPAs will be meaningless unless both the EU and the ACP countries and regions become seriously committed to a reform process that works toward the two following elements of coherence:
> to promote real local appropriation, these reforms will have to respect the diversity of situations and must restore the regional and national development of the affected countries as the number one priority;
> while international harmonization is a requirement that must be maintained throughout negotiations, this does not mean standardizing all agricultural trade policies on the model of an ever-increasing and unregulated liberalization of trade.
This situation, which has been feared for quite some time by African countries and whose dangers have been repeatedly stressed by WOAgri, is becoming quite alarming. This is proof that the WTO rules are not directed at helping the world's poorest, but rather quite the contrary, and that the name Doha "Development” Round is a farce. It should really be called the "Impoverishment” Round.
Quotations from articles and news briefs from French and international media, as well as the most recent weekly newsletters published by AFDI [Agriculteurs Français et Développement International].
1 Seventy-nine African, Caribbean and Pacific countries grouped into six regional blocs: West Africa, Central Africa, East and Southern Africa, Southern Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Read our article ACP countries, Europe and the WTO: what agreements can be reached to promote development?, published in the Analyses and comments section as well as the latest "A look at the news" items on this subject.
2 ECOWAS is one of the two subregional entities representing West Africa in the EPA negotiations.
3The Competitiveness Council, established in June 2002, was born out of the merger of three existing bodies: the Internal Market, Industry and Research Councils. It meets five or six times a year.
4The West Africa region has established an organization to carry out and monitor negotiations, centered primarily around a Ministerial Monitoring Committee on the EPA negotiations, comprised of representatives from member States of the two sub-regional West African organizations: ECOWAS and WAEMU (West African Economic and Monetary Union).
5 The current trade agreements between the European Union and the ACP grant almost all imports from ACP countries free and unlimited access to the European market. Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria are the three ECOWAS countries not classified as Least Developed Countries (LDCs). All of the other ECOWAS members are LDCs and enjoy free and unlimited access to the European market under the "Everything but Arms" initiative.
6 L’Europe favorise la faim en Afrique, Libération, 16 octobre 2007.