West Africa to seek delay to EU trade deal

West Africa plans to ask the European Union for a two-year delay to a planned economic partnership agreement (EPA), leaders said at a summit on Friday, but the EU’s executive Commission ruled out a postponement.

Brussels hopes to negotiate far-reaching EPAs with six regions in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) to come into force by January 1 2008.

But the EU’s negotiating plans have run into opposition from some developing countries who say they require them to open up too much of their economies to European competition.

“We reckon that we are not yet ready and we are asking for a delay of two years to organise ourselves better,” Jean de Dieu Somda, minister-delegate for regional cooperation of Burkina Faso, which hosted a summit of heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) on Friday, told Reuters.

The EU’s proposed EPAs are designed to replace the existing Cotonou Agreement, signed in Benin in 2000, which allows ACP countries—many of them former European colonies—preferential export access to the bloc.

European officials say the new agreements will boost growth and spur development. But opponents say they threaten farmers and industries in poor countries which are ill equipped to compete, thereby increasing poverty.

Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja, who holds the rotating chair of the Ecowas bloc, told fellow leaders they should bear in mind their stage of development.

“Our economic and industrial base still needs time to adjust beyond the 2008 deadline for concluding this partnership agreement,” Tandja said.

“So we need to discuss further with our partners, to agree together a pace and modalities for the necessary steps, so the final arrangement will be honoured under the best conditions for all.”

A spokesperson for EU aid Commissioner Louis Michel ruled out a two-year delay to the EPA agreements.

“A delay of two years to conclude the agreement is out of the question,” Amadeu Altafaj said in Brussels.

He said the EPA deal should take effect when a World Trade Organisation (WTO) waiver allowing continued preferential treatment for ACP countries expires at the end of 2007.

“The WTO waiver expires at the end of this year, so it’s not realistic,” Altafaj said.

He said there would be transition periods on tariffs, to be negotiated in the talks on the EPA, which would be “asymmetrical”, meaning requirements on African states would be lesser than those for the EU.

Opponents of the EPAs say poor nations will be unable to compete with subsidised farm exports from rich European countries, although some countries, such as Kenya, have promoted the deals as handing a lifeline to key export industries after the expiration of the WTO waiver. - Reuters

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