Economic Partnership Agreements

Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) are unfair trade deals which Europe is trying to negotiate with 76 former colonies - some of the poorest countries in the world. The global campaign against EPAs continues.


27 September: Stop EPA Ten Year Anniversary

StopEPA2012TJM activists were outside business secretary Vince Cable’s office in London today over Britain pressing the world’s poorest countries to sign trade deals that critics say will throw many more people into dire hardship.

Senior figures from 18 organisations in the Trade Justice Movement, representing more than a million people, handed in a letter to Cable, warning these agreements would break his white paper vow last year to ensure trade delivers the best results for developing countries.

The demonstration comes on the tenth anniversary of the start of EU trade negotiations with 76 countries, mostly former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific region.

One region, the Caribbean, has already signed a full trade economic partnership agreement with EU negotiators.

Now, the EU is ignoring concerns and increasing pressure on the other countries to sign, threatening to axe or downgrade beneficial terms of trade offered to developing countries until negotiations are concluded.

Paul Spray, policy and programmes director at Traidcraft, a charity which has long campaigned on EPAs and signed the letter, said: “The EU’s tactics are completely unacceptable. If these changes happen, it will do huge damage to regional cooperation among developing countries and totally undermine some of their key industries. For example, Swaziland will see duties on its sugar exports rise from zero to €339 per tonne, crippling the industry.”

Activists say the EU plans to change two key schemes (the Generalised System of Preferences and Market Access Regulation 1528) that will leave countries such as Namibia and Botswana trading on the same terms as Brazil, as well as 17 developing countries with current trading arrangements ended or much less beneficial.

The decision now goes to the European Council and, if the changes go through, will put huge pressure on ACP countries to sign deals they have repeatedly said they do not want.

Dot Keet, a development analyst and long-time trade activist in Southern Africa, said: “Europe’s trade negotiations are undemocratic and the agreements are unjust. As part of a flawed global economic system, the current trade regime is fuelling the food, economic and climate crises facing Europe and the world. In that context, African and other countries cannot sign long-term agreements that set their policies in stone, because they can't know in advance what policies they will need to deal with these looming problems. African civil society has a long history of mobilising against the EU's proposed free trade agreements. So it is good to see European civil society also calling for their politicians to deliver on their promises”.


European Commission seeks fresh bullyting tactics to force developing countries into bad trade deals

The European Commission is trying new tactics to force developing countries to sign up to its highly controversial Economic Partnership Agreements. First, in May of this year, it released a proposal to slash the number of poor countries eligible for lower tariffs on exports to the EU, from 176 to 80 under the Generalised System of Preferences scheme. Then, at the end of September, it released plans to end a scheme meant to support the transition process to signing and implementing the agreements, the Market Access Regulation. If countries like Namibia and Botswana fail to meet the EU’s new January 2014 deadline, they will have to compete for access to EU markets on an equal footing with countries like China and Brazil.


Eighteen African and Pacific countries stand to lose access to the transitional Market Access Regulation, which allows exports to enter the EU duty-free and quota-free. Other arrangements are in place for the nine Least Developed Countries in the group: the ‘Everything But Arms’ scheme. Seven countries would face significantly increased tariffs: three quarters of exports from Swaziland would not benefit from any preferential access, and they would have to deal with the Generalised System of Preferences - a much more complex scheme. Namibia and Botswana (ranked 105th and 98th respectively on the Human Development Index) would not qualify for any preferential access at all.


The Commission argues that the four years of the transitional Market Access Regulation should be sufficient to negotiate and begin to implement Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which were supposed to be concluded in 2007. In the EC’s own words “countries which would be withdrawn from the Market Access Regulation have a choice: whether to go ahead and establish a partnership with the EU or not.” 


This position fails to recognise that the problem is not one of timing but of the failure on the part of the Commission to address the serious problems with EPA negotiations identified by developing countries. Developing countries have long argued that there is insufficient focus on development and have resisted a number of Commission proposals, such as the inclusion of the ‘Singapore issues’ of investment, services, procurement and competition. The Commission’s approach is also in direct contradiction to the spirit of the Cotonou Agreement which commits the EU to leave ACP countries no worse off under new arrangements than under previous regimes, and to provide alternatives to EPAs.


Whatever they decide to do, it is clear that this proposal would lead to countries within African and Pacific regions having widely varying arrangements with the EU. This has potential grave implications for work towards regional integration, which African countries have identified as crucial to achieving development goals. Vastly differing trade arrangements will make an already complex process much more difficult. For example Kenya is likely to feel under increased pressure to sign an EPA so that it can maintain preferential arrangements, however it is the only country in the East African Community regional bloc that would lose preferential access. This means it would either have to launch negotiations on its own with the most powerful trading bloc in the world, or it gets no deal.


There are a number of options available to the Commission to address the problems it is encountering in the EPA negotiations, without the need to resort to these kinds of bullying tactics. Firstly, for countries that do not wish to sign EPAs, the EU needs to seriously look at what alternatives it could offer. The current reform of the Generalised System of Preferences presents a perfect opportunity to provide countries that are unable or unwilling to sign EPAs with preferential access to EU markets. It could improve the mechanism for graduation by product, to exclude sectors that are considered competitive, rather than insisting on excluding whole countries.


The EU needs to use better tools for measuring poverty, such as the Human Development Index, so that its proposals take into account the three quarters of the world’s poor that live in Middle Income Countries. Under the Commission’s current proposals, Gabon would see a considerable reduction in preferential access, despite being ranked 93rd on the world Human Development Index and 35% of the population living in poverty.  


Developing countries have time and again asked for greater flexibility in the scope and timing of market access proposals in EPA negotiations, to give them the policy space to manage the impact of market liberalisation on their economies, for example by protecting industries that are not ready to compete. Finally, the Commission must drop its most recent proposals to amend the interim Market Access Regulation and instead review what is needed to progress EPA negotiations in each region to meet the expectations of developing countries.


 The EU has always claimed that EPAs are a tool for development, if this is genuine, then it must stop trying to bully developing countries into signing and start addressing their concerns.


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