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Civil society in revolt against EU-ACP trade agreements

Civil Society in Revolt Against EU-ACP Trade Agreements

SouthScan (London)

May 6, 2005

African civil society organizations supported by a number of major European NGOs have moved into clear confrontation with the European Commission on the issue of the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA).

They say these deals will wreck domestic African agriculture and industry and are warning African politicians not to go along with them.

The EPAs should be signed before early 2008 between the EU and the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) states, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East and Southern African grouping Comesa. The EU deadline marks the expiry of the waiver authorizing the EU to offer preferential access to ACP products.

The NGOs include in Europe Christian Aid, Oxfam, Eurostep and Belgium’s ’11.11.11’ platform, as well as a number of West African civil society organizations.

Mandelson reassures

Last month in Bamako, during the session of the Joint Parliamentary Assembly (JPA) which groups MPs from the EU and from 78 ACP states, the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson tried to lay to rest their fears.

The EPAs, he said, "are about supporting the processes of regional integration" between ACP countries. They are also about "securing further market access for the ACP countries in the EU", and in order to achieve that the EU will help to boost the economic and supply-side capacity of the ACP countries, said Mandelson.

To that end a monitoring mechanism will be set up to make sure that EU’s development aid is effective, he added, and described the EPAs as "a 21st century response to development challenges - ambitious, different, creative, incorporating the best of development inventiveness as well as development orthodoxy in a way that is fit for a new century".

However, he was aware of some problems including the difficulties faced by ACP countries who need to comply with rigorous European sanitary standards.

Nevertheless, overall, the rules governing trade flows in the EPAs are inherently good for development because they provide a stable and predictable framework for investors, said Mandelson, who also told the JPA that the EPAs needed to be designed so as to complement and not contradict the wider, anti-poverty strategy spelled out in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

But African civil society organizations were not convinced. In a joint statement, the ’Forum for Another Mali’, Senegal’s ’ENDA Tiers Monde’, the ’Africa Trade Network’ and a number of other NGOs including peasants associations such as CNOP (Mali) and ROPPA (West Africa), went so far as to call the EPAs "an arm of mass destruction against African and ACP economies".

Another document signed by most of these organizations and the European NGOs mentioned, by the Harare-based ’Southern and Eastern African Trade Information Institute’, the Zambian Trade Network and Christian Aid, urged along the same lines an end to the EPA negotiations.

Their document argues that trade liberalisation "does not on its own automatically lead to positive development outcomes". Before negotiating, ACP countries should meet a number of conditions including the possession of "healthy economic sectors, potentially competitive producers and effective state capacity".

In other words, they say ACP countries are being forced to open up to EU goods "before they are in a position to compete", which would be "devastating" to these economies, particularly in the area of agriculture.

To the EU’s embarrassment, the document disclosed that an EU mid-term report on the sustainability impact assessment of the EPAs warns that they "might accelerate the collapse of the modern West African manufacturing sector".

The document also challenges the EU’s argument that the liberalisation will be "asymmetrical".

"Proposals for longer timeframes combined with lower percentages of liberalisation for ACPs do not solve the problem. Many ACP countries are poorer now than they were two decades ago", says the document.

It also accuses the EU of wanting to undermine the positions that the ACP have defended within the World Trade Organisation in trying to force them to open up their markets in the areas of investment, competition and transparency in government procurements, known as the ’Singapore issues’.

The document also disputes the EU’s claim that the ACP governments want the EPAs. It recalls that Botswana’s President Festus Mogae expressed "apprehension" about them and that those who accept these negotiations have in fact succumbed to "a fait accompli", quoting a Mauritian document saying that the decision was taken by the ACP group "not without reticence" and was "based more on pragmatism rather than the belief or conviction that the ACP states would benefit from the EPAs".

It further notes that East African MPs deplored the pace of negotiations that left their countries "without adequate considerations of the options open to us, or understanding of their implications, and that we are becoming hostages to the target dates that have been hastily set without the participation of our respective parliaments".

In addition the EPAs will pose considerable risks to the finances of the ACP states, the NGOs say. Projections from the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung predict that the EPA will cause major declines in government incomes as a result of tariff dismantlement, since customs revues represent between 40 and 50 percent of state revenues in Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone or Uganda.

Although the European and African NGOs acknowledge that in principle regional integration can promote growth, they point out that the process is still at an early stage in most ACP regions and warn that therefore opening to EU imports before these markets are consolidated will undermine integration rather than support it.

In the view of the chairman of Mali’s National Coordination of Peasants Organisations, Ibrahim Coulibaly, the EPAs can only increase Africa’s food deficit.

"There is no example in history of a country that managed to develop its agriculture by opening its markets, specially when the game is biased by EU’s farm subsidies", he told SouthScan.

Moreover, points out Coulibaly, "even the import of products that we don’t produce does already undermine our agriculture. Wheat is a case in point. Its price is so low that the consumption of bread has expanded all over the continent, at the detriment of the sorghum and millet producing farmers".

Mali’s former minister of tourism and prominent feminist and anti-globalization militant Aminata Traore, another leader of the ’No’ campaign, considers that speeches praising the virtues of the EPAs are "totally irresponsible".

In an interview with SouthScan, she warned that Europeans should not be surprised if in the coming years as a result of more crisis and more unemployment in Africa they see more illegal immigration and more wars on the continent. Coulibaly agrees and adds that if demagogue politicians are managing to recruit thugs and militias in Cote d’Ivoire, the main reason is because the youth there have no job prospects.

Quotas imposed

The conclusions they draw are unsurprisingly totally opposite to Peter Mandelson’s and are likely to create problems for those African leaders who sign the EPAs with the EU.

One of the conclusions is that Africa should protect itself. This is not as unrealistic as it may look. In Bamako, Cameroonian activists explained how they managed to force their government to impose early this year quotas on imports of EU frozen chickens that were ruining the local poultry sector, and explained that they intended to spread similar campaigns in other countries for this and other products.

A second conclusion drawn by Aminata Traore is that it is time to create awareness among the African public since too many African leaders fail to represent their own people’s interests.

To a large extent, European Green and Left MPs share this analysis. The co-chair of the JPA, Glenys Kinnock agrees. "For the ACP to negotiate with Europe, it is a bit like me getting into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson because we might go in supposedly as equals but I suspect it would be a knock-out at the first round", she says.

Yet Kinnock does not think it is appropriate or realistic at this time to "stop EPAs". Instead she says she is heartened by commissioner Mandelson’s note that he is emphasizing the importance of the development aspect of the negotiations. What we need to see now is exactly what this monitoring mechanism is about, she says.