Govt, EU Dig in As Trade Agreement Target Date Passes

The Monitor, Kampala

Govt, EU Dig in As Trade Agreement Target Date Passes

By Peter Nyanzi

15 September 2009

EAC partner states were unable to meet the target date of July 31, to complete negotiations of the comprehensive EPA, writes Peter Nyanzi.

The government and European Union officials have stepped up efforts to dispel fears that the country’s exports to the European Union could be in jeopardy following the expiry of the target date for finalising the signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).

An interim framework agreement between the East African Community (EAC) and the EU was initialed in Brussels, Belgium on November 27, 2007 with an understanding that the full agreement would be concluded at the end of July, 2009.

With a target date of July 31, passing almost two months ago, there has been apprehension about the validity of the interim plan under which the two blocs are trading with each other.

However, Mr Emmanuel Mutahunga, the senior commercial officer in the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry, has now come out to reassure the country that market access to the 27-member bloc of 500 million people was still "secure."

"Of recent, there have been concerns that the EAC partner states were unable to meet the target date of July 31, to complete negotiations of the comprehensive EPA and thus fears about the trade regime under which our private sector will be trading with the EU," said Mr Mutahunga at a press briefing in Kampala last week.

"We would like to assure all stakeholders that the Framework EPA that we initialled in November 2007 is in force until the comprehensive EPA enters into force. Thus the market access negotiated under the Framework EPA remains secure. The private sector should as such plan with no uncertainties to exploit the market opportunities."

Because of the need to beat the December 31, 2007 deadline dictated by the World Trade Organisation (WTO); the free trade negotiations between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) became both urgent and frantic.

Without the EPAs, poor countries like Uganda would not continue to enjoy duty-free and quota-free market access into the EU because it would be breaching strict WTO rules of reciprocity.

At the same press briefing, Mr Harvey Rouse, head of Political, Trade and Regional Integration at the EU Office in Kampala, called for patience; saying trade negotiations are "often difficult and time consuming."

"The deadline is not something we should worry about," he said.

"We know we will get there but we have to make sure that everyone’s interests are taken care of."

He was non-committal on the main sticking points that are delaying the negotiations. However, the EAC was severely criticised from various quarters for initialing the interim agreement, with critics saying the regional bloc gave away too many concessions to the EU.

Even before the interim agreements were signed, anti-poverty activists were lobbying legislators and policy makers in both the EU and ACP countries saying the EPAs had been derailed from the pro-development agenda they were supposed to bolster in a bid to help poor ACP countries become more competitive, generate decent jobs and access new technologies.

They said the EU must commit to raising sufficient resources to build the trade capacity of the ACP countries and help them overcome supply side constraints that keep their populations in perpetual poverty.

Mr Mutahunga said Uganda has compiled an exclusion list of numerous "sensitive goods," which it wants to protect from imports so as to safeguard employment and national revenue. The in-built transition period of 25 years before liberalizing is another mitigating factor.

The officials said negotiations on the EPAs would continue with a view to extending their scope so that they cover the liberalisation of services, as well as food safety, competition, investment, intellectual property among other issues.

Mr Mutahunga did not suggest any new deadline for the negotiations to be finalised. He said the ministry had prepared a response to the EU proposals, which is already going through the policy-making machinery.

After that, the proposal would be subjected to a ratification process by the Cabinet after satisfying all the requisite legal requirements.

Over the years, the EU has become the most important trading partner with Uganda accounting for more than 50 per cent of her total exports compared to the US, which takes just under 4 per cent.

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