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Botswana in fragile balancing act at EPA talks

Mmegi, Botswana

Botswana in fragile balancing act at EPA talks

By Mbongeni Mguni, Staff Writer

18 June 2010

Botswana has emerged as the dealmaker in the contentious Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations aimed at finding middle ground between the European Union on one side and South Africa, Namibia and Angola on the other.

As it plays host to the six SADC EPA states in key discussions in Gaborone this week, Botswana is expected to negotiate common ground and foster regional cohesion ahead of further discussions with the EU around August/September.

Botswana, economically the largest of the four countries that signed an interim EPA (iEPA) last June, will use this week’s meeting to nudge South Africa, Namibia and Angola towards proposals that could see the finalisation of EPA negotiations with the EU.

Besides being eager for regional cohesion, Botswana’s zeal is driven by practicalities such as its potential loss of a large import market, critical SACU revenues and the adverse economic impact of antagonising key coastal states like Namibia and South Africa.

In addition, Botswana - which has lucrative export lines to the EU - could lose out should the World Trade Organisation (WTO) enforce the December 2007 deadline SADC EPA countries agreed to for their negotiations with the EU. Botswana’s rivals in exports to the lucrative EU market could gleefully push the WTO to enforce the deadline, jeopardising the country’s beef and base metals exports.

This week, it emerged that Botswana’s olive branch initiatives were complicated by the emergence of a scalding missive from the Namibian trade minister essentially rejecting the EU’s proposals and questioning its intentions in the EPA.

In the document, Hage Geingob states that "all too often" African states are "forced" to sign agreements that "eventually hound us". "We cannot sign an agreement just for the sake of giving into the demands of the other side," says Geingob. "Signing holds serious economic and policy consequences for Namibia.

"Other negotiating configurations have not signed EPAs, yet we seem to be singled out for rebuke for not doing so. We see this in the media all the time. Is this perhaps part of the tactics of divide-and-rule and playing us off against our fellow African countries? Bulldozing a member and so-called partner? Surely we should not condone this."Geingob’s letter cites several reasons why Namibia is currently unprepared to sign the iEPA or move towards a comprehensive EPA. It decries the EU Trade Commissioner’s "condescending" response to requests for negotiations on unresolved issues holding some SADC EPA states from signing on.

Geingob also accuses the EU of badgering the SADC EPA states into signing EPAs, which give the EU greater access to the regional market, while simultaneously engaging in Free Trade Agreements with countries that are able to compete with exports from the SADC region.

The Namibian trade minister argues that the issue of signing or not signing the iEPA could have grave consequences for SACU and "may well spell the end of the Customs Union as we know it now".

Botswana, which is also the chief negotiator for the SADC EPA states, hopes this Friday’s meeting in Gaborone will ease regional attrition and galvanise all states towards common proposals ahead of further negotiations with the EU.

Botswana’s Chief Negotiator, James Masisi, says regional cohesion is at the heart of the approach to further dialogue with the EU. He told BusinessWeek that this position was communicated to the EU during the Brussels meeting in May. "Our big issue was that the EU should help us foster group cohesiveness; help us not break up for whatever reason," he says. "The major issue was to say, ’Since South Africa and others are not ready to sign, why don’t you give us time in the negotiations so that in the process, we can solve certain issues and move closer together?’"

A positive for the SADC EPA group is that the EU has warmed to discussion of unresolved issues, marking a break from its previous insistence that iEPA signatories notify the WTO of the agreement and implement it.

"We gave them a list of unresolved issues and they agreed to look at them, provided we gave them a written text of these," Masisi notes. "We did so and they have said they will look at them. This does not mean they will accept them, but they will look at the list. There was also talk of having a dedicated meeting to try and solve these issues." Another success for the SADC EPA states is the EU’s placing of legal status on five previous resolutions and confirming that these will appear unchanged in the final EPA. Agreed to at an EU/SADC EPA meeting in Swartkopmund, Namibia last year, the five had become an apple of discord with the region accusing the EU of declining to clarify or confirm that these issues would appear in the final EPA.

"Following our meeting in Brussels, the Trade Commissioner has written to confirm that these five resolved issues will be in the final EPA," Masisi explains. "Thus, there is legal assurance to say the EU has agreed to this."

However, still outstanding and most contentious are issues to do with alignment of market access, tariffs and rules of origin. Technical working groups from the EU and the SADC EPA group are pursuing the rules while market access and tariffs will be discussed further in Gaborone.

Botswana hopes after this week’s meeting, the SADC EPA group will emerge united, resolute and armed with sound proposals to the EU regarding the outstanding issues, which should help move the process towards a final EPA.