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ESF: Public urged to act on trade agreements

IPS | 20 October 2004

Public Urged to Act on Trade Agreements

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Oct 20 (IPS) - African and European civil society groups are urging European citizens to put pressure on their governments to halt regional trade agreements between the European Union and developing countries.

A group of leading international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the British-based fair trade organisation Traidcraft launched a ’Stop EPA campaign’ Oct. 15 at the European Social Forum (ESF) in London to put pressure on European Union (EU) member states to reject the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).

The campaign is supported by some 120 organisations from across Europe and Africa including Action Aid, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Action for Southern Africa and Oxfam International.

EPAs are reciprocal trade deals which fall under the Cotonou agreement signed in June 2000 in the West African country Benin between the EU and 77 countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) regions. The Cotonou agreement was meant to mark a new era in cooperation between countries from the North and South.

The negotiations are due to be concluded by December 2007, and the EPAs will be implemented between 2008 and 2020.

The EU says EPAs will integrate ACP states into the world economy, promote sustainable development and contribute to poverty eradication.

But Traidcraft and other NGOs say such trade liberalisation will threaten 750 million of the world’s poorest people because market liberalisation will force local enterprises to compete with subsidised European goods and services.

The Stop EPA campaign specifically argues that ACP countries will suffer unfairly under EPAs as poor countries will not receive ”special treatment” and will not be exempt from opening up their economies as much as rich countries.

It adds that the agreements will force controversial new issues through the back door such as the so-called ’Singapore issues’ on investment, transparency in government procurement, competition policy and trade facilitation. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has dismissed these under the Doha Development Round.

Added to this, Traidcraft says ACP countries will also receive less money from trade taxes on European goods and have less to spend on health and education.

The NGO points to estimations that under EPAs only 25 percent of Ghanaian industries would survive and that it would take 15 years to restructure the Jamaican sugar industry.

”The overwhelming emphasis on liberalisation in the EPA negotiations proves that they are about expanding Europe’s access to ACP markets, rather than about ACP countries’ development. Unless the direction of the negotiations dramatically changes, EPAs will lead to deeper unemployment, loss of livelihoods, food insecurity and social inequality in ACP countries,” Liz Dodd, trade policy adviser for Traidcraft said in a statement.

Civil society groups are now hoping that the Stop EPA campaign will capture public attention to put pressure on their governments to stop the trade agreements in their tracks.

”We are trying to raise awareness and take political action through the campaign to popularise the issues as much as possible,” Dodd told IPS Tuesday.

Dodd who is in Brussels with members of African NGOs to discuss their concerns with decision makers at the European Commission and the European Parliament, says the campaign seeks to engage social movements in all 25 EU member states.

”We want to reach other NGOs, trade unions, student groups and women’s groups so that they will put pressure on their governments to take action over the EPAs,” she said.

”For too long people have been concentrating on campaigning against the World Trade Organisation, so EPAs have crept in through the back door,” she said. ”But these could prove to be more damaging than some of the WTO’s policies.”

The Pacific area — the last of six regions to be involved in the agreements — started its regional negotiations with the bloc last month, but Dodd insists it is not too late to take action.

”I think the problem we have made in the past is that we’ve been lobbying the European Commission to make changes to the EPAs. Now we know what they are we want to target member states so they can take action too. There is still space to look at alternatives to EPAs,” she said.

The campaign is making a series of pointed requests to the EU and is asking the bloc to stop the ”current direction” of negotiations, remove the demand for reciprocal trade opening and new issues from its negotiating mandate and allow the ”necessary policy space” for ACP countries to pursue their own development strategies.

It also wants the EU to ”work urgently” to change WTO rules and ”investigate alternatives that leave ACP countries better and not worse off, as was promised in the Cotonou Agreement.”

Nancy Kachingwe of Africa Trade Network, a key member of the Stop EPA campaign, says the regional agreements are ”completely inconsistent” with the goal of poverty eradication, economic development and basic social rights.

”Governments need to go back to the drawing board and work on a trade regime that responds directly to the needs of developing countries, rather than the imperatives of the WTO or the trade agenda of the EU,” she said.

 source: IPS