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Britain urges EU to change stance on free trade talks

The Guardian | Monday October 16, 2006

Britain urges EU to change stance on free trade talks

· Ministers champion fair deal for poor countries
· Call for Mandelson to be more flexible

Angela Balakrishnan

Britain will again weigh into its battle with the European commission today over trade policy ahead of EU trade ministers meeting in Luxembourg. In a letter to Brussels, ministers urge the commission to change its stance on trade liberalisation.

Gareth Thomas, international development minister, and Ian McCartney, minister of state for trade, have written to Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner. The ministers raise their concerns over the state of negotiations for economic partnership agreements (EPAs) between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. "We need to ensure the EPAs are genuinely development-friendly and not just about opening up developing countries’ markets to the EU," Mr Thomas said. "Our concerns are that the negotiations haven’t got as far as we think they should have done."

The letter comes as the negotiations for a new EU trade policy, which needs to be implemented by the end of next year, come under review.

The UK has expressed concern over the EU approach and tensions between London and Brussels ran high last May when a letter from the European commission was leaked. It revealed that Mr Mandelson was trying to persuade Tony Blair to take a more moderate line in Britain’s pro-poor country approach to trade liberalisation. The commission accused the government of adopting a stance influenced by celebrities and non-governmental organisations.

Mr Thomas and Mr McCartney are calling for the European commission to be more flexible in its approach and consider alternative agreements, should developing countries choose not to enter an EPA.

Their proposals are backed by Oxfam which also raised concerns about the ability of the European commission to listen to ACP countries.

"We have hit this point now where there is a year of negotiations left to go with only a few in the ACP countries knowing about the negotiations and the implications for them," said Claire Godfrey, Oxfam’s trade policy adviser.

Mr Thomas and Mr McCartney believe any progress on bilateral negotiations should not be delayed even though they are committed to a successful revival of the Doha world development round which ground to a halt earlier this year.

In Luxembourg, the ministers will press the commission to provide ACP countries with increased duty and quota-free access to European markets.

Changes to the Rules of Origin will also be called for so that developing countries can source their raw materials from wherever they choose. So far negotiations have focused on free trade and emphasised opening up markets, however Mr Thomas said that free and fair trade needed to go hand in hand. "The EU must also allow ACP countries as much time as they reasonably need to open their own markets," the letter says, "while providing effective safeguards to prevent unfair competition from subsidised European products undermining African products on their own doorstep."

A spokesman for the European commission said any concerns would be listened to. "We see EPAs as development tools; trade helps development, not vice versa," he said.

Meanwhile the ministers are optimistic that progress can be made at this meeting, with Mr McCartney confident that the UK has the support of other EU member states, eager to build on trade commitments made last year at the G8 summit.

 source: The Guardian