The Post Zambia. With clear evidence of disintegration among the ACP countries starting to emerge, it seems the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) will not attain its intended objectives of enhancing trade, provision of full market access and free trade market reciprocity arrangement.
Recent happenings indicate that the free trade – EPAs would not bring development to the 77 former European colonies known as the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) which have been divided into six groupings for the purpose of negotiating the agreement. Over the past few months, pressure in the negotiations of the EPA with the European Union have pushed three regional economic groupings in Africa on the verge of disintegration instead of enhancing integration and unity.
For instance, the September 2009 meeting in Mauritius, resulted in four out of the 11 Eastern and Southern African (ESA) countries to sign interim EPAs and in June 2009, four out of the 12 Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries also signed interim EPAs in Brussels, Belgium and in the ECOWAS grouping, Cote d’Ivoire had already signed and latest reports indicate that Ghana was about to sign.
Just last month, African Union (AU) chairman and Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika stated that his country would not be part of the EPAs in their current format since the intention of Europe was to divide Africa.
“EPAs are a divide and rule tactic being advanced by Europe for selfish interests and Malawi will not sign until all concerns are addressed and I know all these manoeuvres since I was among the pioneers of regional integration,” stated President Wa Mutharika, who is former Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) secretary general.
All these developments indicate that the EPAs would undermine African regional groupings’ attempt to have a common agreement with Europe that would meet the differential development levels and needs of various countries.
The failure to have a common agreement would certainly affect regional integration especially the planned merger of COMESA, SADC and EAC into a single customs union under the Kampala tripartite agreement.
Other fears are that the EU want to ‘grip’ the ACP countries especially Africa so that the Europeans will be in a stronger position to control the natural resources especially that China and India are posing a serious threat in their scramble for Africa.
However, in the midst of tensions, fears and perceived negative impact of the EPAs, ESA configuration chairperson and Zambian commerce and trade minister Felix Mutati is optimistic that regional integration would be enhanced before signing a full EPA.
Mutati said the development dimension must come first before market access and that was now the basis of the negotiations under the EPAs that would be signed soon with the European Union (EU).
He said the ESA region was not using time factor as a pressure point to attract member countries to sign interim EPAs.
“Time is running out as per our commitment in Mauritius but there are still differences in perspectives hence the need for patience and if we rush to sign we may not get the outcome we want and we don’t want to use time as pressure point especially when dealing with sovereign states because countries are also consulting their citizens and this processes takes time,” Mutati said. “And this is why we want to engage Malawi to find out what fears they have and what can be done to address the challenges, after engaging Malawi hopefully in the next coming weeks that is when we shall meet the EU and set a timeframe to sign interim EPA.”
He said following the Mauritius meeting where only four out of 11 ESA countries signed interim EPAs, there had been attempts to narrow differences and challenges among those countries that did not sign.
“As chair, Zambia is supposed to coordinate and we shall base our negotiation on development as first priority and market access will be second because we have things to consider such as infrastructure to address, challenges of competitiveness and supply side constraints,” said Mutati.
Despite the optimism from Mutati, it is clear that EPAs would not bring development especially that the EPAs are based on a flawed neo-liberal macroeconomic theory which does not take into account unequal power relations between rich and poor countries.
Initially the ESA region was designed to involve eastern and southern African countries, but some countries broke away to start negotiating EPAs under East African Community (EAC), SADC and ESA, with these differences EPAs would only result in disintegration and not regional integration.
Given this foregoing, African governments are challenged to ensure that EPAs do not undermine the continent’s trade and development agenda.
It is also expected that EPAs must address people’s priorities and seek to restore the dignity of the people of Africa, particularly the vulnerable and excluded.
From the regional integration perspective, EPAs have presented greater challenges to Africa’s efforts towards achieving strong and effective regional economic groupings because the EPAs are seen as an additional layer of complexity to the already unstable and fragile regional blocs existing within the continent.
Several African countries including Zambia are facing the complexity of multiple memberships to more than one regional economic bloc and as such the EPA configurations only served to cause more confusion and complexity to the regional integration agenda.
If EPAs were genuinely promoting regional integration as proponents EU and some ACP government officials claim to be, achievement of regional integration process should have been a prerequisite to EPA negotiations and conclusion.
The signing of EPAs by individual countries or specific sub groupings within ESA, SADC or ECOWAS will establish multiple and different trade regimes that would eventually undermine current regional integration agendas.
This article was written by Kabanda Chulu.