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22nd Feb 2020

Frustrated with EU 'pressure tactics,' Africa ready to walk away from trade talks

  • A protest in Brussels against the EPA process (Photo: EUobserver)

African states are ready to abandon ten years of trade talks with the EU as their patience has worn thin in response to what they call "pressure tactics" on the part of the European Commission.

In a pair of papers seen by EUobserver using language as blistering as diplomatic phrasing gets, African trade chiefs call on Brussels to step up and take the same supportive attitude towards development behind closed doors in trade talks as in their public pronouncements.

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"The divergences between the EU and Africa seem to be intractable and not resolvable, despite ten years of negotiations," reads one of the papers.

Raising the stakes ahead of an EU-Africa summit in Tripoli, Libya beginning on Monday, the nations say that if Europe does not abandon its demands that the continent radically liberalise its economies immediately, Africa says it is ready to walk away from the process.

The position paper and political declaration from trade ministers - for the first time involving all five African regional economic communities active in negotiations over 'Economic Partnership Agreements' and the African Union Commission together - are a catalogue of complaints.

"There is great concern within Africa about the way the EPA negotiations have been conducted and about the outcome of the negotiations so far," reads the paper.

"The critical issues that will allow Africa to move forward on the path to industrialization and sustainable economic growth and development have still not yet been addressed."

The document argues that their is a gap between Brussels's rhetoric and its negotiating posture.

"Despite the encouraging statements emanating from the EU which acknowledge the difference in the levels of development of the negotiating parties and the need to show adequate special and differential treatment for Africa, the necessary flexibility in the negotiating position of the EC on many critical issues has not been forthcoming."

"Greater political will on the part of the EU is needed to move the EPA process forward.

The paper argues that the impasse in negotiations in not due to a lack of policy reforms or market opening on the part of African countries, but that Europe continues to push a liberalising model that is inappropriate for states at their level of development.

"Lessons to be learnt from the global financial and economic crisis highlight the need for increased regulation of the market, rather than policy reforms that put more emphasis on the removal of regulation. Africa needs policy space to diversify its economy, achieve competiveness and attain sustainable economic growth and development."

"Failure of the part of the EU to grant the flexibilities will pose serious risks to Africa's future development."

The states are opposed to EU demands that tariffs on a full 80 percent of their imports be eliminated. The depth of such liberalisation would leave much of the continent's fragile and small industry vulnerable without the umbrella of tariff protection - the same tariff protection, they say, that rich countries historically used themselves to build up their own industry - and lead to deindustrialisation.

The nations want to improve infrastructure and institutional and production capacities before opening up their markets.

They also say it is unfair to threaten to withdraw access to their EU markets unless agreements are signed.

Ahmadou Abdoulaye Diallo, Mali's trade and industry minister, said of the stalemate: "To end the impasse in the current talks, Mali suggests that a number of measurable and objective criteria be met before African countries can conclude the negotiations."

For him, this includes realisation of the Millennium Development Goals, sufficient levels of development within industry and agriculture, a diversification of exports and robust intra-African trade, meaning a development of strong domestic demand rather than just an export-orientation to wealthy countries.

"If these indicators are not met before concluding the EPAs, the entire process would be highly dysfunctional."

Earlier this month, EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht admitted that relations between the two sides were "souring".

"It is true that [these talks] can be souring the relations between Europe and Africa," he told Reuters.

However, he also hinted that Europe is ready to shift on some of its demands and the timescale involved.

"On services we can be flexible. I think also on rules we can have a progressive approach," he added.

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