In 2000, the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, otherwise known as the ACP group, adopted the Cotonou Agreement, which is a framework treaty on trade, aid and political cooperation. It replaced the previous Lomé Convention, providing for a general set of privileged relations between the EU and the ACP countries in matters of market access, technical assistance and other issues. The objective is to facilitate the economic and political integration of the ACP countries into a liberalised world market over the next 20 years.
Under the Cotonou Agreement, the parties agreed to negotiate a separate set of free trade agreements between the EU and the participating ACP countries, tailored to six clusters of countries (West Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, Central Africa, SADC, the Caribbean and the Pacific). For the EU the EPAs are meant to be comprehensive free trade agreements, laced with rhetoric about "development" and "regional integration". For the EU, comprehensive means not just about the liberalisation of trade in goods, but also about liberalisation of services, investments and government procurement, and the strengthening of intellectual property rights, competition rules, etc.)
The negotiations on these EPAs started in September 2002 and were supposed to be completed by 31 December 2007. Hence, a WTO waiver to maintain the EU’s unilateral preferential trade relations with ACP countries until that date was sought and granted. (The EU pushed "WTO compatibility" of the EPAs as a frame for the talks and ACP countries accepted it.) As the talks advanced, ACP governments became caught between a rock and a hard place. They wanted the bits of market access that the EPAs offered, but would have to pay an extremely high price in terms of loss of customs revenue, destabilisation of their economies from the expected flood of EU imports, unclear financial aid commitments from Brussels, reduced political autonomy, etc. Civil society, labour unions and business groups in the ACP countries studied the implications and came out with vigourous campaigns to stop the signing of the EPAs.
The 31 December 2007 deadline for the EPAs to be signed came and went in a flurry of drama. Only the Caribbean region concluded negotiations on a comprehensive EPA before the deadline; a number of states — including Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire — initialed bilateral interim EPAs on goods only to secure the continuation of their exports. Others, like Senegal, swore they would not sign until development concerns were seriously taken on board. Since then negotiations continued to revise the interim EPAs which appeared to contain many problematic provisions; and to arrive at regional agreements. These negotiations have not led to any new agreement yet and in order to put pressure on the negotiations, the EU has imposed a new deadline: ACP countries which have initialled or signed (interim) EPAs but have not ratified or started to implement these agreements before 1.1.2014 will lose their preferential market access to the EU. A state of play as of February 2014 (courtesy of Marc Maes at 11.11.11) is provided below:
last update: February 2014
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