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Nigeria: CSOs seek to halt EU-ACP Economic Partnership Agreement

This Day (Lagos) | 4 December 2007

Nigeria: CSOS Seek to Halt EU-ACP Economic Partnership Agreement

Senator Iroegbu

A coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Nigeria have called on the Federal Government and other members of the West Africa region to refrain from agreeing with the European Commission (EC) on the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) in their current state; in a bid to redress the current global trade relations that have been described as being unfavorable to the developing countries.

Above call was made by the Trade Network Initiative (TNI), a coalition of twelve CSOs which focuses on trade issues, at a forum in Abuja last week. At the event, the Chairperson of Trade Network Initiative (TNI), Hauwa Mustapha advocated for restraint in signing the EU-ACP Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).

Mustapha opined that the current economic woes besetting Nigeria and other African countries were the effect of slave trade and colonialism, through which the Africans were forced into unequal trade relations with the West; and warned that Nigeria and the rest of Africa would be mortgaging their future if they sign the ACP document as it stands. TNI, she explained, is a coalition of CSOs centered on trade issues joined forces to voice their opposition to an unfavorable partnership championed by the Western countries through their neo-liberal intuitions in the name of free trade.

Similarly, developing countries have protested this trend of socio-economic exploitation enshrined in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and its off-shoots like EPA, which accounts for their reluctance to sign the ACP come December, 2007 deadline. Free trade is the major crop of EPA and is expected to be WTO compliant anchored on import liberalisation of general goods and services.

The CSOs’ view is that Nigeria may not sign the agreement as originally conceived. Against this backdrop, the European Commission (EC) has requested the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries to endorse an interim EPAs on goods to comply with WTO Article 24 of GATT, allowing current market access for ACP to continue, while postponing other complex and sensitive issues to 2008. However, many at the forum have expressed fear of possibility of most ACP countries being intimidated into signing at the last minute; with so much pressure and threats from the European Commission (EC), that even if the EPA as it stand now is not signed, there may be some sort of lighter agreement. Until recently, the EC has threatened to end trade privileges to the ACP countries if a comprehensive EPAs agreement is not signed by the end of the year. However, some CSOs championed by TNI have faulted the rationale. According to Mustapha, "this approach could also mean that the ACP countries could risk signing an agreement that may never deliver on development oriented objectives".

She questioned the sincerity of the EU whose essential trade strategy behind EPA has always remained a desire to secure a reciprocal deal to coincide with the end of the WTO Cotonou waiver. "Once a reciprocal free area is established and WTO compatibility is achieved, ACP countries stand the risk of loosing any legal leverage to push for the completion of sensitive and complex areas in the second stage", she warned.

Furthermore, she said commitment to market access without a complementary improvement in ACP nations’ competitiveness in the global economy cannot deliver on the developmental objectives. "This is because there cannot be fair competitions between the two unequal, with the EU goods flooding our markets, and killing our economy with attendant massive unemployment. The EPA offered a generalised system of trading including general goods and services at a reciprocal levels with negotiations keyed in favor of EU countries with lack of alternatives on the part of ACP".

Reiterating their stand on EPA, TNI claimed the West is not interested in developing ACP countries just like that without necessarily gaining in quantum leaps in return. To the group, the way EU is pushing the ACP countries to sign the document when they know they are not ready underscores a hidden motive. "What goods are we going to export in the name of free trade except raw materials? They want us to export raw cocoa and cotton in exchange to a more expensive chocolate and textile materials that we may not even need", Mustapha queried. There is a general perception among the CSOs that the hard-line stand and ’no plan B’ attitude of the EC, coupled with lack of technical capacity of ACP countries accounts for the continued drag of the EPA negotiations.

Their view is that negotiations have remained skewed in favor of the EU just as ACP regional groups and countries have not dedicated time to create viable alternatives to the Cotonou agreement; while the region has all through the process merely reacted to plans put forward by EU. Meanwhile, the EC has offered a Generalised System of Preference (GSP) for non-LDC ACP regions which are unable to sign an interim market in goods; and if by January 2008, this is applied, the Commission will become the first to increase tariffs for many of the world poorest countries.

Reacting to the issue, TNI recommended that EC seek an extension of WTO waiver or fine tune its GSP to avoid raising tariffs in the middle of EPA negotiations, while more time is given for the completion of a detailed and comprehensive deal that will contain EU’s commitment to development, aid, and measures to increase competitiveness. For as long as these issues are not settled, the coalition said it would be unrealistic for any ACP region or country to sign any agreement with the EU, the coalition insisted. ACP countries were encouraged to develop pragmatic policy strategies that would assist the regions diversify production and export market in an ever-changing global economy in order to stimulate economic growth that will impact positively on the livelihoods of the people.

In a related development, the National Association of Nigerian Traders (NANTS) have flayed the absence of officials of the European Commission at a recent meeting between the ECOWAS-EU Chief negotiators was scheduled to hold in Abuja in the last week of November. In a statement by Mr. Edwin Ikhuoria, NANTS’ Advocacy and Communications Officer, the organisation revealed that up till the last moment, the European Commission (EC), did not respond officially to the correspondence in confirmation of the meeting, neither did they turn up for the meeting.

NANTS said the meeting was essential to the negotiations of Economic Partnership Agreement between the parties, against a background of a meeting in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, by the West African Ministerial Monitoring Committee to examine the feasibility or otherwise of concluding the negotiations by 2007 in view of outstanding tasks facing the region. The Ministers resolved that the conclusion of the EPA within the stated deadline of December 2007 is not realistic. This was communicated the European Commission (EC) which immediately rejected the decision.

The EU is currently insisting on a ’goods only agreement’ with ECOWAS or what some call a ’partial EPA’ to be in place. ECOWAS on her own part is asking that the EC seeks for the extension of the WTO waiver in order to ensure that none of her member states is left worse-off than they were under the Cotonou preference.

To NANTS, headed by Barrister Ken Ukaoha, the EC’s withdrawal from the meeting has created an indelible impression in the minds of West Africans in confirming that the EC has a secret agenda with the EPA.