EPA Negotiations: The honeymoon is over…

ECDPM The European Commission (EC) finally announced today that countries that have concluded an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) but not taken the necessary steps to ratify and implement it would no longer benefit from the EPA market access to Europe as from 1st January 2014.

The EC Market Access Regulation (MAR) 1528 of 1st January 2008 provides duty free quota free market access for African Caribbean and Pacific countries that have concluded an EPA. The Regulation requires countries to sign, ratify and implement the Agreement within a “reasonable period of time”. At it currently stands, the MAR is a temporary, unilateral instrument of the EU to ensure that, pending the implementation of the agreement by ACP countries, there would be no trade disruption.

A quick glance at it reveals the following facts: Only 18 island countries from the 36 ACP countries that had initialled or signed an arrangement have consumed the marriage. The other remaining countries are yet to complete the nuptial contract, with the risk of seeing their marriage cancelled…

The announcement of this proposal is no surprise: Trade Commissioner De Grucht and other representatives of the European Commission have constantly been warning that this situation was not sustainable and would therefore have to end at some point in time.

The proposal will come into effect on 1st January 2014, after approval by the Council. It is worth mentioning here that MAR 1528 in 2008, was adopted prior to the Lisbon Treaty, and therefore the Parliament will not have to give its assent to it. The timing is also not surprising: 1st January 2014 is also the time when the new Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Regulation should come into effect. It is also the date when the countries that have signed and ratified an EPA will have to start implementing their respective trade liberalisation commitments (remember some countries had a 5 year moratorium before starting liberalisation).

The message is therefore clear: if countries want to continue to benefit from EPA market access, either they have to sign and start implementing their existing EPA or conclude a new regional EPA. For others, either they will fall under one of the schemes of the new GSP (i.e. Everything but Arms, Standard GSP or GSP Plus) or they will have no preferences (as might be the case for Botswana and Namibia).

What does this imply?

This coming year will be a political litmus test for the relationship between the EU and its African and Pacific partners. If from a legal and a “coherence” perspective the Proposal of the EU is well understood, there are also good reasons why, four years down the road, since the MAR in 2008, nothing has happened. First, some compromise on many issues, including on the accompanying development measures, are yet to be agreed. Moreover, most countries are also engaged in building their regional integration agenda:  many are either consolidating their existing customs union or setting it up. And Europe is well placed to know that regional integration takes time. So while a deadline by 1st January 2014 might seem a reasonable time for the EU, it is in fact very short for the proper sequencing of regional agenda with trade negotiations with third countries. Finally, some might have simply lost interest in the process.

So, like in 2007, expect some tensions in the coming months: some countries might be pressured to sign, ratify and implement the EPA that might not fulfil their ambitions and interests in terms of content, timing and geographical configuration by fear of market disruption, in particular if they risk loosing preferential access to the EU.  Others might simply walk out. If no common position can be found at the regional level, the EPAs could seriously disrupt any regional integration effort.

But 2014 is not 2007. The world has changed and this time the response might be different. The financial crisis invited itself to the dance, Africa has gained a lot more confidence in its economic prospects and the increasing importance of “emerging” partners has brought in a new geopolitical dynamism, de facto reducing the leverage of the EU.

Finally, it takes two to tango. African and Pacific countries now have to reveal their strategies, interests and preferences regarding their relationship with the EU. It is a question of political will in many cases and for those interested in an EPA, it will require some effort to reach a compromise. At the same time, while one might understand the European logic to put an end to an instrument that has remained “temporary” for too long and is not compatible with rules of the WTO, there are still some “contentious issues” that remain unresolved. The EU has also to reveal its cards on how far it would be willing to accommodate some genuine concerns that are blocking the negotiations. Setting a deadline is therefore not sufficient, the EU should come up with concrete proposals on how to move the negotiations forward.

Just putting a deadline could open the way for a new impetus to the current negotiations towards the conclusion of regional EPAs. But it could well turn out to be a guillotine if no flexibility is provided to advance the negotiations.

Further information

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