10th Dec 2023


The EU-Kenya free trade deal shows a waning 'Brussels effect'

  • Vultures on a tree in Kenya. With regards to Kenya and East Africa Community , one may suspect the EU is applying a cunning divide-and-rule strategy (Photo: Polygon.Cafe)
Listen to article

EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis popped a bottle of champagne in his office early June 2023. After the failed ratification of an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the East African Community (EAC) in 2016, he finally could declare success.

The Republic of Kenya, which belongs to the EAC, and the European Union found a compromise for a bilateral free trade agreement. However, there is little to celebrate.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Aiming to shape the world in its image, the EU's trade policy towards African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries sets out to collaborate in support of regional and continental integration. For that reason, the EU aims to sign trade agreements with groups of states, called European Partnership Agreements (EPAs).

The EPA with the East African Community, which is one of those groups, was already dead and gone in 2016, with EAC member states recognising that local industries would not be able to withstand competitive pressures from EU firms, locking the region even further in its role of provider of low-value-added primary commodities. It was calculated that the welfare in the EAC would decrease while the EU would register a welfare gain of $212m [€202m].

This posed a problem for Kenya as the only non-Least Developed Country (LDC) in the region.

While its neighbouring countries would remain in preferential trade arrangements as LDCs, the EU threatened to withdraw the remaining preferential market access to Kenya if it did not enter into an EPA.

With other EAC countries not willing to sign the EPA, Kenya decided to make use of the variable geometry principle of the bloc, which allows a member state to move forward without other EAC members.

However, this again created a problem for the EAC.

Considering Kenya is part of the customs union of the EAC which ensures free flow of goods between the countries, the enforcement of the agreement would lead to a free flow of European goods to all EAC countries through Kenya, given the difficulty to enforce rules of origin. Intra-EAC imports could decline by $42m.

For this reason, the EU would never allow its member states to sign bilateral trade agreements.

Indeed, Kenya's move is in breach of the Customs Union Protocol and the Common Market Protocol of the EAC. On top of that, its interpretation of the variable geometry principle might be flawed on two levels.

Firstly, the principle is intended to be evoked only between members of the EAC and not with third parties like the EU.

Secondly, EAC heads of state decided in February 2021 that Kenya was allowed to invoke the principle to implement the standing EPA, but not necessarily to open new negotiations.

The Kenya-EU FTA effectively undermines the efforts of EAC states towards regional integration. The EU is to blame for undermining the region's successful integration efforts.

Brussels effect or boomerang effect?

One may suspect the EU is applying a cunning divide-and-rule strategy. Certainly, the bloc is known for being able to export its legislative framework towards other parts of the world, dubbed the 'Brussels' effect'.

If the deal with Kenya gets ratified, it is likely that rules enshrined in the agreement would be taken over de facto or de jure by other EAC states and ultimately find their way in the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is currently being developed.

This becomes apparent in the chapter on trade and sustainable development of the trade agreement with Kenya, which contains binding provisions on the environment and climate.

While binding environmental provisions should be welcomed, the fact that the agreement does not recognise the differentiated responsibility of countries to combat climate change is unbalanced to say the least. Binding environmental provisions should be supplemented with effective financial support, given the difference in both partners' resources.

While the Brussels effect is certainly at play, the truth is that Europe's influence is waning.

The EU remains unsuccessful in finalising different EPAs. Its postcolonial attempts to close unbalanced trade deals are challenged more and more by its trade partners. As long as the EU misuses trade to further its own interests at the detriment of the interests of other countries, the Brussels effect might well become a boomerang effect.

Author bio

Blandina Bobson is director of programmes for Oxfam Kenya. Andrew Gogo is fiscal justice strategist at Oxfam Kenya. Herbert Kafeero is programmes and communications manager at the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI). Jonathan Matthysen is advocacy advisor for Oxfam in Brussels. Emily Ngolo is the just economies programme officer for Oxfam Kenya.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Kenya hosts first-ever Africa Climate Summit

Kenyan president William Ruto launched the inaugural Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi and showcased the continent's potential as a clean energy powerhouse. Africa contains 60 percent of the world's solar potential, massive geothermal capacity and CO2-absorbing tropical forests.

How should EU reform the humanitarian aid system?

The example of Ukraine illustrates that donors like the EU should be more ambitious about the localisation of aid. And this funding to local actors needs to be predictable, flexible, and longer than the typical one-year funding cycle.

Tusk's difficult in-tray on Poland's judicial independence

What is obvious is that PiS put in place a set of interlocking safeguards for itself which, even after their political defeat in Poland, will render it very difficult for the new government to restore the rule of law.

Can Green Deal survive the 2024 European election?

Six months ahead of the EU elections, knocking an 'elitist' climate agenda is looking like a vote-winner to some. Saving the Green Deal and the EU's climate ambitions starts with listening to Europeans who are struggling to make ends meet.

Can Green Deal survive the 2024 European election?

Six months ahead of the EU elections, knocking an 'elitist' climate agenda is looking like a vote-winner to some. Saving the Green Deal and the EU's climate ambitions starts with listening to Europeans who are struggling to make ends meet.

Latest News

  1. How Moldova is trying to control tuberculosis
  2. Many problems to solve in Dubai — honesty about them is good
  3. Sudanese fleeing violence find no haven in Egypt or EU
  4. How should EU reform the humanitarian aid system?
  5. EU suggests visa-bans on Israeli settlers, following US example
  6. EU ministers prepare for all-night fiscal debate
  7. Spain's Nadia Calviño backed to be EIB's first female chief
  8. Is there hope for the EU and eurozone?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us