European foreign ministers are expected to agree on Tuesday (20 November) to conclude watered-down free trade agreements with countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP), as an end-of-year deadline on existing preferential arrangements threatened to disrupt trade relations.
After five years of talks, the EU and the 77 ACP nations are now likely to settle for a temporary deal that would leave out sensitive issues such as opening up developing countries’ services and investment markets.
Foreign ministers will be briefed, on 20 November, by Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson on the progress that has been made so far in what have proved to be difficult negotiations with six separate regional groups on the so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), after a series of high-level meetings in Brussels last week.
They are expected to concede that a 31 December 2007 deadline for finalising ambitious, World Trade Organisation-compatible trade deals to replace existing non-reciprocal preferences is “not realistic”, and that limited one-year “framework agreements”, just covering trade in goods, development cooperation and fisheries, should be concluded in the meantime.
Erastus Mwencha, secretary general of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), said an interim deal would be “a good start”.
“The much feared disruption of trade […] after December 31 has been put to rest,” added David Nalo, permanent secretary at Kenya’s Trade and Industry Ministry.
Indeed, countries that are unable to sign a deal with the EU by then are threatened with the reintroduction of steep tariffs on their exports to the bloc.
Anti-poverty activists had accused the EU of attempting to “strong-arm” developing countries into unfair deals that would give superior European companies unlimited access to developing markets and kill off local industry.
But Mandelson and Development Commissioner Louis Michel say that comprehensive EPAs would help ACP countries to build stronger economies and regional markets, thus giving more opportunities to local businesses and attracting new investment.
It is not yet known whether the EU plans to conclude the interim deals with each of the six regional groups, or just with certain sub-groups of countries or individual nations.
Eastern and Southern African nations, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, as well as Indian Ocean countries such as Mauritius, said last week that they expected to initial the interim agreements before the end of November.