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Central Africa: Not Ready to Negotiate Trade with Europe

Inter Press Service

Central Africa: Not Ready to Negotiate Trade with Europe

By David Cronin

4 June 2007

BRUSSELS, Jun 4 (IPS) - Central Africa seems an unlikely candidate for a free trade deal with the European Union.

The region remains scathed by a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Stretching from 1998 to 2004, the war took an estimated four million lives and the country is still struggling with its legacy. The DRC’s first free elections in four decades took place only last year, yet individual warlords continue to destabilise some provinces, as atrocities in South Kivu have illustrated over the past few months.

Despite the blood splashed across their region’s recent history, Central African countries — Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe — have been told by the European Commission that they must sign an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the bloc by the end of this year.

The EPAs require that the 77 African, Pacific and Caribbean (ACP) countries offer reciprocal market access to their EU trade partners. This will bring trade agreements between the EU and the ACP in line with World Trade Organisation rules.

EPAs are set to kick in at the beginning of the year when the Cotonou Agreement expires, but only if negotiations finish in time. The Cotonou Agreement, signed in 2000, gave the ACP states preferential and non-reciprocal EU market access. WTO member states have allowed the EU and the ACP until the end of 2007 to renegotiate their trading regime.

Some studies have touched on how the Central African side is at a distinct disadvantage in the negotiations. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the consulting firm, has undertaken a "sustainability impact" assessment on EPA proposals, at the request of the European Commission. It concluded — perhaps euphemistically — that as countries like the DRC are still emerging from conflict, they are not in a strong negotiating position.

Other observers point out that the Congolese government appears confused by the negotiations. As a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), it has also been taking part in parallel talks on a similar EPA under negotiation with governments in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Yet the DRC will only be allowed to sign one EPA, so it must choose sides.

"The fact that the DRC has been in a war has really debilitated its negotiating capacity, so much so that it’s not clear where they are negotiating now," Bertram Zagema, a trade analyst with Oxfam-Novib in the Netherlands, told IPS.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the DRC have also complained that the negotiations lack transparency. "No NGO representative has been taking part in the negotiations," said Ngwasi Mayele from the organisation Action Chretienne (Christian Action) in Kinshasa.

"This leads us to believe that the agreement will only benefit people in power. Do you think that can be for the benefit of the country? We don’t," he said.

With about 60 percent of all Central Africa’s imports already coming from the EU, fears have been expressed that the primary objective of the EU trade officials in the EPA negotiations is to increase the flow of European goods into the region even further.

The Sub-Regional Platform of Peasant Organisations of Central Africa (PROPAC) has argued that the flooding of markets with cheap European produce has damage the livelihoods of local farmers to such an extent that they can barely survive with their meagre incomes. Poor farmers have not been informed or involved in the EPA talks, PROPAC has said, arguing that the end of 2007 is too soon to bridge that deficit.

In Brussels, trade officials are taking the lead in the negotiations, with little input from their colleagues, yet are given responsibility for addressing development issues and the fight against poverty.

But Peter Power, the European Commission’s spokesman on trade, contended that the aims of the EPAs are to alleviate poverty and to trigger economic development.

"It is our firm belief that the EPAs are entirely development tools," he told IPS. "We are putting trade at the service of development. This is the only hope that all of the regions involved in the negotiations have of breaking out from the spiral of dependency on a small number of commodities. That hasn’t brought them economic success to date, so we need a new approach that is compatible with the WTO."

Christine Andela from the Coalition of African Organisations for Food Security and Sustainable Development (COASAD) in Yaounde, Cameroon, said there is a "morose atmosphere" among anti-poverty activists in her country about the direction of the EPA talks.

Her analysis has been shared by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, which has lamented "the failure of the negotiations [between the EU and Central Africa] to have a development focus" and "the imbalance in the negotiations towards a focus on trade liberalisation."

The UN’s Economic Report for Africa 2007 points out that agriculture accounts for 27 percent of Central Africa’s gross domestic product. Out of all regions in the continent, only East Africa has a higher share for agriculture.

The report also said Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Sao Tome and Principe were the only countries in the region with higher growth rates in 2006 than the previous year, mainly because of better prices for agricultural commodities such as cocoa and coffee.

"The reality is that even without an EPA, we have had an opening of our markets for a long time," COASAD’s Andela added. "We have had a lot of dumping of European goods on our markets and no opportunity to get out of poverty. An EPA will help perpetuate poverty. This is abominable."