Southern Africa: "Reclaim Control over EPA Talks"

African countries should diversify their trade options, says Dot Keet.
31 March 2010
In the media

Southern African governments must regain control over the negotiations on the trade deals known as economic partnership agreements (EPAs).

WINDHOEK, Mar 29 (IPS) Southern African governments must regain control over the negotiations on the trade deals known as economic partnership agreements (EPAs). Issues earmarked as deal-breakers should be resolved before talks to a full EPA are continued. These include limiting the EPA to a goods-only agreement and the EU dropping its demand for reciprocity.

The demands emanate from a public meeting of the Southern Africa People’s Solidarity Network (SASPN) and the Southern African Christian Intiative (SACHI) held on Mar 24 and 25 in the Namibian capital.

SACHI is a non-denominational Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO) that strives towards "empowering leaders to become vibrant and transparent citizens, promotes Christian moral values and its obligations, and actively engages in the democratic process in Southern African region".

SASPN was started in 1999 by civil society groups that believe the struggle for economic, environmental, social and political justice, including for people’s participation in decision-making, continues after the fall of apartheid. In this vein activists from nine African countries, representing three EPA negotiating blocs, adopted a statement against the EPAs at the meeting.

"If we open up the services sectors like the EU wants, European companies with a huge competitive advantage have unlimited access to our water, electricity or telecommunications sectors while we have no regulations in place," said Rangarirai Machemedze, deputy director of the Harare-based Southern and Eastern African Trade, Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI), a member of SAPSN.

African countries should diversify their trade options; and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Southern African Customs Union should advance much more decisively with regional economic integration, declared Dot Keet, trade activist and research associate at the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, another SAPSN member.

Part of this, according to Machemedze, is the development of domestic regulatory frameworks before embarking on trade deals that require opening of markets.

"The EPAs in their current form will not in any way help develop the economies of Africa," Machemedze argued.

"While the developed world sees trade as an end in itself, for us trade is a means to an end. This end is development. Currently maybe five African countries are able to produce goods, add value to products and sell these internationally. Other countries are unable to do this, because of poor infrastructure, limited production capacity and a lack of investment in research and development.

"So how can Africa effectively compete with the EU on a basis of supposed equality?" Machemedze asked.

Dakarayi Matanga, SAPSN secretary general, added that, "reciprocity in trade in this case actually means ‘the winner takes all’. The countries that dominated global trade in the past will continue to do so. But Africa deserves the opportunity to protect its markets. No country has been able to develop its economy without protection."

The principle of reciprocity in the EPA – insisted on by the EU – is laughable, according to Keet. "One of the biggest myths in the EPA negotiations is that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) demands reciprocity in the EPA. The Europeans give non-reciprocal access to their markets all the time, most recently to the Balkan states, without this leading to a challenge at the WTO.

Brussels’ insistence on reciprocity and on the controversial most favoured nation-clause that automatically extends preferential trade agreements with third countries to the EU are, in her opinion, driven by a desperate need of the Europeans to access new markets.

"It is a complete inversion of reality that the EPAs would be in our interests. The Euro-global strategy set out by Brussels is directly aimed at ensuring market access for European producers who are under immense pressure from emerging countries (such as China, India and Brazil).

"This is why it is important for Europe to re-assert its dominance over Africa. The European Commission deliberately exploits existing tensions and encourages particular interests, such as those of the cut flower industry in Kenya."

EPA critics in SAPSN point out that the interests of Kenyan flower producers gave the decisive push for the East African Community (EAC) to sign the controversial trade agreement. "But obviously there are many more interests in that region that should have been taken into account," Keet pointed out.

"How does it help your food security if you stop growing crops and start growing flowers for export?" added Matanga.

The EU is playing a game of stick and carrot, according to the civil society groups’ analysis. "They refuse to discuss the wider economic context, such as Europe’s own agricultural subsidies that are very hard to compete with," Matanga commented.

Poor countries are being blocked through WTO rules to pay subsidies to their farmers and, even if they were allowed, they would not be able to spend 365 billion dollars on such subsidies, as rich countries did in 2007.

Matanga further argued that the EU uses development aid as a "sweetener" to open up markets.

Said Keet, "we understand the desperation of countries like Mozambique that are almost fully dependent on aid. Zimbabwe just signed the EPA, basically giving away its infant industry protection simply as a public relations exercise with the EU. Still, there are countries like Namibia, Malawi and Zambia that have taken a stance and said they will not sign unless some conditions are met."

Meanwhile the EPAs hinder the project of regional economic integration in SADC by dividing the region into separate EPA negotiating blocs. "Zambia and Zimbabwe have been swayed to negotiate under the East and Southern African (ESA) EPA configuration," explained Machemedze. "This is an obscure grouping that doesn’t even exist in terms of current regional structures."

Matanga added: "We are being balkanised. Through the EPAs the EU promotes a neoliberal agenda that divides us. Instead of talking about real fair trade, the fast-track opening of markets threatens the livelihoods of small producers and farmers in Southern Africa."