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West Africa bloc aims for EU trade deal by June ’09

Reuters | 17 Dec 2007

West Africa bloc aims for EU trade deal by June ’09

By Mathieu Bonkoungou

OUAGADOUGOU, Dec 17 (Reuters) — West African countries agreed on Monday on an 18-month timetable to negotiate and sign a regional economic partnership agreement with Europe by June 2009, top officials said.

Brussels had hoped to sign economic partnership agreements (EPAs) with six regional groupings of mainly poor former colonies around the world before preferential trade terms expire on Dec. 31, but most regions have failed to reach a full deal.

Anxious to safeguard their exports before preferential trade terms expire on Dec. 31, cocoa and banana growers Ivory Coast and Ghana have initialled 11th-hour free trade deals for goods, and West African trade ministers met on Monday to discuss how to accommodate the interim deals with the regional negotiations.

Ablasse Ouedraogo, special adviser to Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission President Mohamed Ibn Chambas, said ministers had agreed a plan "to conclude a pro-development, fair, balanced and mutually advantageous EPA".

"We are giving ourselves 18 months," Ouedraogo said.

Ivory Coast and Ghana’s deals cover trade in goods. The full EPA is expected to cover services and a host of other areas.

Some West African leaders have bluntly rejected EPAs as damaging to the poorest continent, but Brussels and 15-member ECOWAS plus Mauritania are still trying to forge a compromise.

Many say the Ivory Coast and Ghana deals have made an already difficult task even harder.

Ivory Coast and Ghana’s deals provided for the immediate abolition of EU tariffs on virtually all their exports to the world’s biggest trading bloc, and for the gradual dismantling over 15 years of tariffs on 80 percent of imports from Europe.

EU officials initialled a similar deal on Monday with another banana grower, Cameroon, which is negotiating an EPA with other central African states, the European Commission said.


Critics of the interim deals, including farmers’ groups and international aid organisations like UK-based Oxfam, say signing interim deals threatens to blow apart the regional integration the economic partnership agreements (EPAs) are meant to promote.

"The European Commission’s decision to negotiate bilaterally causes more problems than it solves," Burkina Faso’s Trade Minister Mamadou Sanou said at Monday’s meeting.

Brussels is negotiating EPAs with four different regions of sub-Saharan Africa, and divisions over trade dominated an EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon this month, the first in seven years.

There, President Abdoulaye Wade of ECOWAS member Senegal launched an outspoken attack on the proposals, saying, "We are not talking any more about EPAs, we’ve rejected them ... we’re going to meet to see what we can put in place of the EPAs".

The European Union insists the EPAs remain the best replacement for the trade preferences it grants to nearly 80 former colonies, which have been deemed illegal by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). A WTO waiver expires on Dec. 31, 2007.

As part of efforts to secure deals with six groups of African, Caribbean and Pacific states, the EU offered this year to remove all import tariffs for countries signing EPAs.

"Our offer is generous and sincere. Much more so than the Americans, Russians or the Chinese. Which continent are African exports going to? Europe. Why all this criticism?" European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in an interview in this week’s edition of the French-based magazine Jeune Afrique. (Writing by Alistair Thomson, Editing by Tim Pearce)

 source: Reuters