West Africa to miss EU trade partnership deadline

West Africa will miss a December 31 deadline to sign a new trade partnership with the European Union (EU) and hopes to keep its preferential commercial privileges for up to two years while it negotiates, a West African official said.

Ministers from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) were meeting on Friday in Côte d’Ivoire to agree a common approach ahead of talks later this month with the EU over signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).

These EPAs are set to replace trade arrangements giving African, Caribbean and Pacific states preferential access to the EU market. These preferences have to be scrapped to conform with World Trade Organisation (WTO) principles.

Anti-poverty campaigners say this shift to the EPA will expose fragile industry in poor African nations to crushing competition from more modern, efficient EU-based firms.

But Brussels, which is pushing the December 31 deadline, says it will boost their economies and attract investment towards them.

“West Africa isn’t ready to sign such an agreement by 31 December,” Ablasse Ouedraogo, special adviser for trade negotiations to the Ecowas president, told Reuters late on Thursday before the start of the West African meeting.

While EU chiefs were pushing for an interim agreement, Ecowas ministers wanted to pursue a legal derogation that would postpone the introduction of the EPA to conform with WTO rules.

“We will then have the time to continue the [EPA] negotiations before the WTO can take action [against us],” he said, adding it “should take less than two years” for the West African bloc to prepare to sign the deal.

Compromise

“It is the most logical and realistic way,” he said, speaking in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital Abidjan.

EU officials have refused to countenance a postponement and have urged African officials to knuckle-down to negotiations.

“It is a WTO imposed deadline. We are governed by international rules and we intend to stick to them.
Our waiver expires at the end of this year and we need a successor regime by the end of this year,” Peter Power, spokesperson for EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, told Reuters in Brussels.

Ouedraogo said he was confident the two trading blocs would reach an agreement that would avoid any disruption to trade with the EU, West Africa’s number one trading partner.

“There won’t be any worst case scenario. As much as Africa needs the EU, the EU needs Africa. We will find a compromise to enable exchanges to continue that will reinforce the partnership and cooperation between West Africa and the EU,” he said.

Pacific countries have made more progress and this week agreed with the EU to seek a pre-EPA interim deal that would include a timetable for cutting tariffs on goods, rules of origin and safeguard mechanisms to slow sudden surges of imports. - Reuters

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