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Europe: ’Double standards on trade’

Inter Press Service | 22 December 2008

EUROPE: ’Double Standards on Trade’

By David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Dec 22 (IPS) — Double standards are being applied in the way that the European Union awards trade preferences to poor countries, an African exporters grouping has alleged.

Two African countries — Nigeria and Gabon — were both told this month that they could not benefit from a scheme known as GSP Plus, under which developing countries are allowed to sell goods on the EU’s markets without having to pay duties.

Eligibility for the scheme is conditional on respect for 27 international agreements dealing with human rights, with a particular emphasis on labour standards. In both cases, the countries had ratified 26 of the conventions.

Nigeria was rejected by the European Commission for not yet placing an agreement against genocide on its statute books, while Gabon was rejected because it had not yet fully signed up to a convention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the minimum age for granting employment.

The rigid application of the rules in the cases of the two countries appears to contrast with the leeway that the Commission has shown to Colombia. Despite receiving official complaints from labour rights activists about the systematic persecution of trade unionists in Colombia, the Commission decided to extend until 2011 its trade preferences to the Latin American country.

Whereas Nigeria has refused to sign a free trade or economic partnership agreement (EPA) with Europe, Colombia’s right-wing government is involved in talks with the Union aimed at clinching such a deal.

Ken Ukaoho, a spokesman for the National Association of Nigerian Traders (NANTS), alleged that his country is being punished for declining to sign the free trade agreement sought by the EU during 2007.

Nigeria’s stance led the EU to impose extra duties of 4.3 percent and 6.3 percent on Nigerian exports of cocoa butter and coca liquor respectively. With 95 percent of Nigeria’s cocoa exports destined for the Union, the increased levies cost the country about five million dollars by end of March this year. Many beverage manufacturers using cocoa have relocated their production from Nigeria to Ghana.

Ukaoho said that the EU’s decisions made a mockery of official assurances that it would demonstrate flexibility towards Africa in trade negotiations and that the economic and social development needs of particular countries would be taken into account.

He argued that it is wrong to deny GSP Plus status to Nigeria on the basis that it is not yet enforcing the genocide convention, noting that the Nigerian government has pledged its support for this convention and intends to ratify it in the near future.

It is illustrative, he noted, that the trade preferences have been withheld from two African applicants but granted to 16 other countries outside that continent. "This goes beyond double standards," he said. "It shows you that the EU has a colonial mentality towards Africa."

A Commission official dealing with trade issues insisted, however, that his institution has been "even-handed and consistent in applying the criteria for countries to benefit from GSP Plus."

Unlike Nigeria and Gabon, Colombia has ratified all 27 of the conventions concerned, the official said. He claimed that the United Nations and ILO have investigated whether these conventions are being violated in Colombia and that "their most recent conclusions are not so categorical as to enable the Commission to reject Colombia’s request" for trade preferences.

Reports considered by the UN’s Human Rights Council Dec. 10 stated that at least 13,634 people lost their lives in Colombia as a result of political violence between July 2002 and December 2007. In more than 8,000 cases where the perpetrator of the violence is known, the Colombian state has been blamed for 75 percent of the killings.

Colombia also has the highest incidence of murders of trade unionists of any country in the world. Forty labour activists were killed during the first eight months of this year. This is more than were murdered during all of 2007.

Nigeria has been one of the most rigid opponents of the EPAs, which the Commission has been trying to conclude with almost 80 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Less than half of the ACP countries signed accords by an end of 2007 deadline, and in most cases these were described as ’interim’ deals confined to trade in goods. Negotiations are continuing with many countries to try to widen their scope.

Elisabeth Tankeu, the commissioner for trade and industry in the African Union, said that these agreements are the "products of a process unequal bargaining", with the European side pressuring the ACP countries into accepting them.

In an article in the Geneva-based publication Trade Negotiations Insight, she argued that the interim accords will not help to reduce poverty in Africa. Not enough aid is being offered by Europe to ensure that Africa can adapt to and ultimately benefit from trade liberalisation.

"Unfortunately, these critical issues are yet to be seriously dealt with in the EPA negotiations," she said. "The request of African countries that the development dimension of EPAs be adequately considered through the inclusion of binding commitments on additional resources has been largely ignored."

 Fuente: IPS