Seven African countries face paying tariffs on their exports to the European Union if they fail to honour trade agreements signed with Brussels in 2007, EURACTIV France reports.
The European Parliament granted the African countries an extension until October 2014 to ratify their interim Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).
To date, 17 countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group have not ratified or implemented the agreements.
The EPA allows countries to export goods to the EU without tariffs or maximum quotas, under World Trade Organization rules.
The countries benefited from the agreement without delays so as to not disrupt exports, principally towards Europe. In a regulation, the European Commission permitted the countries to maintain their privileged trade status, already upheld in the Cotonou agreement which expired in 2007.
Since then, the EU executive has taken a harder line. In 2011, it proposed suspending the agreement if the countries did not ratify the EPA by January 2014.
The Parliament voted in a strong majority to extend the deadline to October 2014, in a second reading.
In Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Swaziland have not completed the agreement. They along with the Pacific nation of Fiji also risk falling into a stricter commercial regime if they fail to meet the deadline. The others – including Haiti, Burundi and Rwanda – will be covered due to their status of least developed countries (LDC).
But a number of parliamentarians from the Greens and the Socialists and Democrats group felt the deadline should have been extended to January 2016 to allow more “breathing space”. The Parliament had adopted that deadline in a first reading in September 2012.
This time EU lawmakers voted for a compromise deal found with heads of states and government in the European Council.
“Allowing unilateral and free access to certain countries is a violation of the World Trade Organization’s rules and is clearly only a temporary solution… The time has come to fix a deadline,” admitted British Labour MEP, David Martin, who drafted the Parliament’s report.
“We regret that the Parliament and the Council of the EU did not accept our proposal to give these African countries enough breathing space in negotiations.”
Under the current agreement, the African countries benefit from very favourable terms compared to their international competitors for exports to Europe notably of certain foodstuffs, including bananas, tuna, beef and sugar.
A number of Latin American and emerging countries have protested the exception at the WTO, labelling it as discriminatory.
Caught in the crossfire
To the secretary general of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group, Alhaji Muhammad Mumuni, the deadline does harm to the countries involved by forcing them to ratify interim EPA agreements which are counterproductive to regional integration.
“The states are encouraged to trade with the European Union but not amongst themselves,” he said.
Launched in 2002, negotiations over parallel regional EPAs are ongoing in five African subregions. They aim to liberalise the trade in goods, as well as services, investment, and market access rules.
But discussions have stalled on several points, including the suspension of free trade following human rights abuses.
Ministers will meet at the WTO in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2013 in an attempt to reignite the Doha development agenda, which has aimed since 2001 to lower trade barriers and revise trade rules for developing nations.