by Ruth Bergan, Trade Justice Coordinator
On the ten year anniversary of the start of trade negotiations, it is time EU leaders recognised that African and Pacific countries (the “ACP countries”) will not be bullied into deals they don’t want.
At their launch on the 27th September 2002, Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) were touted by Europe as a key tool for development. The EU still describes them as “aimed at promoting sustainable development and growth, poverty reduction, better governance and the gradual integration of ACP countries into the world economy”. Developing countries disagree: only one region (the Caribbean) has signed a full deal, 45 of the original 76 countries have not committed to any deal. The picture for the remaining 16 countries is a mishmash of initialed, signed or ratified deals, sometimes including all countries in a region, sometimes only one or two, creating chaos for closer regional collaboration on areas such as trade, water and energy.
In May of this year the East African Legislative Assembly issued a statement reiterating its concerns about EPAs. Amongst them are the EU’s demands for a high level of liberalization (removal of tariffs on 80% of goods, leading to a huge drop in much-needed government revenues); a ban on the introduction of new export taxes which takes away a country’s ability to control their exports, and the EU’s refusal to address its own domestic agricultural subsidies (the Common Agricultural Policy) which continues to have a negative impact on developing countries, for example by contributing to the dumping of EU agricultural products on developing country markets. Dr Mohammed Ibn Chambas, the Secretary General of the African Caribbean and Pacific States, has repeatedly called for the EU to cease putting pressure on countries to sign, and highlighted the damage that the deals will do to Africa’s nascent industrial and agriculture sectors.
David Cameron claims that “there has never been a march or a concert” for trade, yet these issues have been of concern to activists across the UK since well before the launch of EPA negotiations. In the same year as the negotiations were launched, the Trade Justice Movement set a world record for the highest number of MPs (346) lobbied by constituents in one day. This week, eighteen organisations, including the Fairtrade Foundation, NGOs, trade unions, women’s and church organisations, representing more than 7 million people, are writing to Vince Cable urging him to keep his promise to make trade work for development and activists will protest outside the Department for Business, Industry and Skills.
Despite this widespread concern, and in the face of the worst global economic downturn in living memory, when countries need to retain the ability to manage their economies, the EU is ramping up the pressure on ACP countries to sign. Since June, it has passed significant changes to two key schemes (Generalised System of Preferences and Market Access Regulation 1528) which will remove or reduce current trade preferences for seventeen ACP countries. The deadline for this, imposed by the EU without negotiation, is likely to be 1st January 2016 (although the European Council may try to get that brought forward to 2015). The impact of this for some of the world’s poorest countries will be huge, for example, according to a briefing by Traidcraft, Swaziland will see duties on its sugar exports rise from zero to €339 per tonne, crippling their sugar industry.
There is mounting evidence that EPAs will undermine agriculture and industry, and shrink the public purse through lost tariff revenues in ACP countries. There needs to be a new approach that supports the development of domestic agriculture and markets, effective and well-funded public services, and the creation of domestic jobs. These will help developing countries meet the growing challenges of nutrition and maternal health that Cameron claims to be concerned about. At the European Council, the UK must reject the proposed changes to the Market Access Regulation, ensure developing countries’ concerns are acted upon and call publicly for the EU to stop forcing countries into deals they don’t want.
Read the letter in today’s Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/sep/26/unhappy-anniversary