Fresh campaigns have started for the extension of the period for negotiating a comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the European Commission (EC) and the East African Community.
The new developments are coming just two months before the July 2009 deadline for the signing of the trade agreements. EPAs provides a framework for the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries to negotiate with European countries for simplified trade rules that cover all products.
However, these negotiations have been dogged by deep seated fear that the EPAs could distort the region’s development priorities. Similar campaigns mainly driven by civil society organisations had previously forced EU and the ACP countries to slowdown on the search for a comprehensive trade pact and settle for an interim arrangement to fill a void left after the expiry of the Cotonou trade agreements two years ago.
“The fact that the region is yet to agree on the trade-related issues like policies on competition, intellectual property rights and government procurement renders the July 2009 deadline largely untenable,” argues Ms Monica Hangi of the Tanzania-based Economic and Social Research Foundation.
Yesterday, a number of civil organisations from the five EAC states who gathered in Nairobi appealed to the EAC partner states to go through the proposals of the treaty with a tooth comb. Other outstanding issues in the negotiations are trade in services, agriculture and economic development cooperation. Trade in services has specifically proved controversial in the EAC region as all the other partner states except Kenya belong to the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) status.
Under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and WTO modalities, LDCs are exempted from binding commitments that EU has been pressing for. On agriculture, the EC negotiators have so far refused to discuss its domestic support to farmers with EAC but still insist that the regional economies should remove all their tariff barriers for agricultural produce from Europe.
On the other hand, while negotiators from both sides agree on the need for development cooperation in the region, the EAC negotiators are not comfortable with the EC’s view that development is a process of trade liberalisation and of adopting rules prohibiting discrimination against foreign investors and foreign bidders for government contracts.
“We know there is pressure to conclude the EPAs negotiations within the scheduled timeline but with these many unresolved issues, I would rather we ignore the deadline and sign what we clearly understand than sign in a hurry and later call for support against the very treaty,” said Mr Victor Ogalo, a programmes officer with Cuts International. Earlier, trade minister Amos Kimunya said the rules of origin under the interim EPAs are seriously hampering the benefits of duty free and quota free market access promised under the treaty with EU countries.
He said while regulations have been relaxed for textiles, clothing and fisheries products, a lot more needed to be done if the East African Community (EAC) member countries were to receive the full benefits of free trade pact with Europe The EAC member states which started implementing a customs union in 2005 already enjoy common external tariff, giving them the muscle to approach the EU with a unified market standard which is also a major demand in the EPAs negotiations However, a recent joint study by a coalition of NGOs found that the EU member states would gain much more from the EPAs than their African counterparts.
The study conducted by Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (Seatini), Traidcraft and EcoNews Africa, found out that the trade deal would enable Europe to export Sh81 billion worth of goods to Comesa alone.
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