South Africa says EU pressured Africa to sign EPAs By DAVID CRONIN Inter Press Service African governments signed Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union under duress, according to Dr Rob Davies, South Africas Deputy Trade and Industry Minister. Some 35 of almost 80 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries involved in negotiations aimed at reaching EPAs had accepted deals with the European Commission by December 19. Dr Davies alleged that many of these trade accords were reached because the Commission had threatened to impose onerous tariffs on goods from ACP countries destined for the Unions markets should EPAs not be concluded this year. This led to a situation where a country that was unwilling to sign on did so under huge duress and with little enthusiasm, he said. Although its neighbours Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho have entered into agreements, South Africa has decided not to. This is despite the fact that the five countries comprise the Southern African Customs Union. One of the major points of divergence to emerge during talks between South Africa and the EU concerned the latters insistence that a most favoured nation clause be inserted into the agreement. Such a clause would require South Africa to ensure that any trade concession it grants to a country enjoying more than a one per cent share of world merchandise exports such as China, Turkey, India and Brazil is automatically conferred on the EU, too. This would lock us into a primary relationship with the EU for ever more, said Dr Davies. It would be an unacceptable limit on our sovereignty. Nonetheless, Dr Davies said he was encouraged by assurances from José Manuel Barroso, the Commissions president, during the recent summit between EU and African leaders in Lisbon, Portugal. Mr Barroso promised that further discussions on the EPAs would happen in 2008 and that there would be an opportunity to revise provisions that ACP countries regard as contentious. Mr Barrosos intervention has been considered as more conciliatory than the inflexible stance adopted by Peter Mandelson, Europes Trade Commissioner, who has insisted that ACP countries commit themselves to far-reaching trade liberalisation in order to comply with rules set by the World Trade Organisation. It is certainly a pull-back from the take-it-or-leave-it, this-is-all-I-can-offer-you approach that has governed negotiations, particularly in the last round, Dr Davies said. The EPAs require that ACP countries remove at least 80 per cent of the trade taxes they levy on imports from Europe. This requirement has been denounced by non-governmental organisations, fearful that farmers and nascent industries in poor countries will be unable to compete with an avalanche of imports that are often cheaper than goods produced domestically and, in the case of food, highly subsidised. Mr Mandelson hit back at those criticisms in a speech delivered in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on December 12. The EPAs have been subjected to an aggressive NGO campaign, he said. The EU has been accused of forcing open African markets to European companies; of bullying poor countries into liberalisation they do not want or need What strikes me most about these arguments is that they carry such a profoundly distorted view of the value of trade. More importantly, they show no respect for the many ACP negotiators and reform-minded ministers who have worked hard with the EU to build agreements that reflect development needs, said Mandelson. He claimed that South Africa, which already signed a trade agreement with the EU in 1999, does not seem to speak for the many African countries who need these agreements and who are signing up to them. But Dr Davies dismissed the suggestion that his government has been trying to impede economic progress in Africa. Its manifestly untrue that we are trying to hold everyone back, he said. We were not legally obliged to enter into the EPA (negotiating) process. But we did so because we thought it could be a step to regional integration (in Southern Africa). Im afraid it has worked out in an endgame that could contribute to regional disintegration. Sophie Powell from the British fair trade campaign group, Traidcraft, echoed Davies remarks. It is very clear that countries have signed up as a defence against the threat of tariffs, she said. No alternative was presented by the Commission, as it piled on the pressure. This really is no way to make a pro-development trade policy. The tariffs will not apply to 32 ACP states that are recognised by the United Nations as least developed countries (LDCs). These are eligible to benefit from a scheme known as Everything But Arms, under which most of their non-military exports can enter the Union free of duties or quotas. Yet EU governments decided earlier this month that any ACP country not categorised as an LDC will lose the current preferential access it enjoys to the Unions markets on January 1 unless it signs an EPA. Tariffs often exceeding 10 per cent will be applied to those countries exports, with an adverse effect on their earnings. Ten countries Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Tonga, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue and Nigeria could face such tariffs, as they had not yet signed EPAs as the Brussels institutions prepared for their Christmas holidays. The EUs threat came despite calls by development aid ministers representing four of its 27 governments that no ACP country should be put in a worse-off position if it cannot sign an EPA. Glenys Kinnock, a Welsh Socialist member of the European Parliament, said she was baffled that only ministers from Ireland, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark had issued that plea. I am also obliged to question whether EPAs in their current form can fulfil the promise that they can be tools for development, Ms Kinnock added. Many people concur that cohesive and planned regional integration will be a key driver of economic development. Yet the EPAs that the European Commission is pressuring ACP countries to sign will have an inevitable detrimental impact on regional economic integration, particularly in Africa.