Interview with H.E Dr. Mohammed Chambas, Secretary General of the ACP Group of States

TNI After a few months as Secretary General of the ACP group, what is your priority action plan regarding trade issues, notably when it comes to ACP-EU trade issues?The first most important action is to resolve the impasse in the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) process. The EPAs negotiations have gone on for close to ten years if you consider that the preparatory period started in 2000, when the Cotonou Agreement was signed and the trade provisions were soon thereafter provisionally applied pending formal ratification. It is clear that both the ACP and EC have acknowledged that the state of play in the EPA process is far from satisfactory. There is a desire for flexibility to be exercised on both sides so that the process can move forward.

As you know, the ACP Secretariat is not in the frontline for these negotiations, which are being conducted and implemented at the regional level, but it is ready, willing and able to support and facilitate, in whichever possible way, the resolution to the outstanding issues that are hindering the successful completion of the EPA negotiations as well as the implementation of the concluded agreements.

Secondly, the Secretariat is determined to contribute actively to building trade and productive capacities in ACP countries. With this in mind, the ACP Secretariat intends first to help ACP states remove the obstacles that currently prevent them from increasing their conversion of raw materials into semi-finished and finished goods that could be marketed internationally. This could be achieved not only by strengthening existing programmes aimed at coping with technical barriers to trade, SPS measures and rules of origins, but also by formulating an ACP strategy for the mining sector and extractive industries. We also intend, in the pursuit of this objective, to support institutional capacity building for trade through the creation of a unique ACP institution in charge of trade – for instance, following the example of the Centre for the Development of Enterprises (CDE) or the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). Such an ACP institution could deliver trade-related capacity building activities and monitor intra-regional trade in ACP states, as well as contribute to the creation of the ACP FTA, currently on the drawing board. Finally, supporting the development of economic and trade infrastructures, as well as and improving the business and investment climate in ACP states are also on the agenda of the ACP Secretariat.

Thirdly, the Secretariat plans to support ACP states in their negotiations at the WTO in addition to negotiating with the EU in the context of the EPAs. To do so, we notably intend to (1) develop efficient synergies with the regional integration organisations involved in the negotiations and/or implementation of EPAs; (2) reinforce the technical and institutional support to ACP regional organisations to increase their capacity to negotiate and/or implement an EPA through an appropriate all-ACP programme; (3) regularly organise a consultation forum through the ACP-EU Joint Ministerial Trade Committee; and (4) reinforce the monitoring role of the ACP Secretariat for an effective monitoring of EPAs and operationalisation of the ACP-EU consultation mechanism in line with Article 12 of the CPA.

Fourthly, more will be done when it comes to reinforcing grassroots development initiatives, notably by attracting investments and supporting private sector, including through microfinance programmes to reach the SMEs. In conformity with Article 32 of the revised CPA, we will also do more to respond to the demands for greener economies and to attenuate the impact of climate change. Finally, we will aim to revitalise regional integration processes and ACP inter-regional  cooperation.

You have set up a Working Group on the future of the ACP Group. In a post-Lisbon Europe and in the event of the budgetisation of the EDF, how do you see the future of the ACP Group?

It must be remembered that the ACP Group was created on 6 June 1975 by the Georgetown Agreement, which established its governing bodies and objectives, which extend beyond the ACP-EU Partnership. As regards the future of the Group, it is clear that it must adapt to its own development and to the international environment, while maintaining and strengthening its internal unity and solidarity.

At its 92nd session, held from 8 to 10 December 2010, the ACP Council of Ministers took a decision approving the creation of an Ambassadorial Working Group to examine the prospects for the future of the ACP Group. The Council decision also approved the Terms of Reference for the Working Group, which will begin its reflection in the coming weeks.

I believe that we must consider the future of the Group from a realistic and pragmatic standpoint. I envisage a positive future for the Group and I fully appreciate the role that it could realistically play at the international scene which, in recent years, has been severely marked by changes in inter-dependent relationships, as well as new developments that have opened the way to opportunities for development cooperation. In this context, a sound sense of judgement and the ability to analyse and anticipate events is required.

The idea of the potential budgetisation of the EDF is nothing new, but this process will take place only if a unanimous decision is taken by the EU member states.

While acknowledging that the implementation procedures of this financial instrument need to be modernised and simplified, the ACP Group has, on several occasions, expressed its commitment to the EDF and to the preservation of its acquis in terms of the co-management and predictability of resources made available for long-term development, in accordance with the objectives of the ACP-EU Partnership.

In the context of EPAs in which there is a Joint EPA Council, what is the relevance of ACP settings such as the JMTC to address trade issues and in particular EPAs? How can the ACP group ensure its relevance?

The EPA negotiations are taking place at the regional level. In the first phase, the ACP Secretariat was more directly involved. In the second phase, the Secretariat occasionally participates in the regional meetings when invited.

The most direct involvement of the ACP Secretariat is through the ACP technical Follow-up Group on EPA negotiation and implementation and the ACP Ministerial Trade Committee at the all-ACP level. At the joint ACP-EC level, the Secretariat plays its role in the Subcommittee on Trade Cooperation and the Joint ACP-EC Ministerial Trade Committee (JMTC). But other ACP fora for discussing EPAs do exist. The Joint Parliamentary Assembly (JPA), which meets four times a year, and the Council of Ministers, which meets two times a year, have the EPA process as a standing item on the agenda.

Do you think the remaining African and Pacific countries will conclude the EPA negotiations over the next few months or is it a long-term ambition? If so, is there a common position from the ACP on what is expected from the EU to help the process move forward? Is there anything that the ACP should do?

At the recently concluded JMTC, all ACP regions expressed the wish to conclude the EPAs as long as their concerns and interests are taken on board. There are unresolved issues which the ACP side put forward, although not for the first time. The European commissioners for trade and for development as well as development ministers from EU member states listened attentively. We are waiting to see how they react.

From the ACP point of view, flexibility is required from the EC negotiators on a number of unresolved issues, including, inter alia:

a.    Relaxing the interpretation of substantially all trade and transition periods to enable LDCs to join the EPAs and thereby strengthen regional integration;

b.    Retaining community levies necessary to support the functioning of regional integration in Central and West Africa, until alternative funding mechanisms are put in place;

c.    Allowing ACP states to retain or impose export taxes on products for revenue generation, infant industry protection, industrialisation or value addition purposes;

d.    Ensuring  there is no MFN clause that will limit south-south trade and cooperation;

e.    Deleting the Non-Execution Clause from the draft texts of the agreements; and

f.     Securing a binding commitment on providing adequate resources for meeting the cost of implementing the EPAs and adjusting to the new trading environment.

The list is not exhaustive. However, these are some of the issues on which the EU’s negotiating team will require flexible mandates and fresh political guidance. As SG of the ACP Group, I stand ready to offer my office to assist in the process. My Secretariat is also willing to continue to offer a platform for dialogue among ACP regions to help them exchange information and share experiences.

The ACP does not always take the same stance as the African Union with regard to trade. Is there any mechanism for coordination? Why is there no common statement on issues of common interest?

First of all, you have to remember that the ACP and the AU are not directly involved in the negotiations; it is the member states that negotiate. The clear overlap in membership means that the positions are likely to be similar. The ACP and the AU have a close working relationship and both groupings have taken similar positions, in particular on trade matters. At the WTO, the G90 grouping brings together the African Union, LDCs and ACP states to forge a common front. Frequently the coordinators of these three groups consult and, when invited to take part in the green room process, they usually take a united position.

In the EPA process, the AU is invited to ACP meetings and vice versa. While the ACP focuses more on ACP-EU relations, the AU deals with African integration. The differences end there. Ultimately, the two organisations share the objectives of promoting sustainable development in their member states; integrating their states into the global trade regime; reducing poverty; and improving the overall standard of living of their peoples.

Why did the ACP agree, in the 2010 revision of the Cotonou Agreement, to delete the commitment the EU took in Article 27.6 of the CPA to provide those ACP countries which are not “in a position to enter into economic partnership agreements […], with a new framework for trade which is equivalent to their existing situation and in conformity with WTO rules”?

I think when you refer to this article you have to read the whole article, not part of it. It has other conditions which you have not mentioned.

First of all, it was time bound. Initially, the consideration for countries that did not enter into an EPA was to be made in 2006. However, the process did not facilitate this timing to be met. The issue was revisited in 2008 by the ACP and you may recall the famous retort by the Honourable Peter Mandelson, former EC Trade Commissioner, who stated that “there was no plan B,” meaning there was no alternative to EPAs. That statement disheartened many ACP states, and in particular the non-LDCs. Later, Nigeria and Gabon came requested an alternative, namely the GSP plus, but the EC rejected both appeals. Today, those two countries do not enjoy EPA market access and are paying heavily for not initialling the EPAs.

Another aspect of the article in question was the “conformity with WTO rules.” Today this is one of the most contentious parts of the EPA discussions due to the different interpretation of WTO provision including on “substantially all trade” and “transition period.” Indeed, the EC has in many instances gone beyond the requirements of the WTO. So, the Article had been crafted in a way that it could offer no alternatives to the ACP.

When the matter came up for discussion, the ACP negotiators must have recalled that this provision was not serving any useful purpose and they were not averse to its deletion. After all, it will take more than one article to make the EU more flexible in the EPA process; it is in my view a question of the political will of the leadership in Europe. You can see that in the case of Pakistan, which is facing a serious disaster, the EU moved quickly to offer trade advantages. The same could be extended to some of the poorest countries in the world, which are to be found in ACP, without disrupting the multilateral trading system.

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