EU says West Africa trade talks may stretch to 2008
By Alistair Thomson
27 April 2007
DAKAR (Reuters) - The European Commission is pressing West African governments to negotiate a deal on trade before a WTO waiver on current trade perks expires on December 31, but acknowledged on Thursday a short extension may be needed.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) outlawed the EU’s preferential trade terms for nearly 80 of its African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) former colonies in 2001, but granted a waiver until the end of 2007.
Brussels is negotiating with six regional blocs including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to sign Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) phasing in freer trade over a number of years.
"If we find ourselves (not having signed) by December 31, we will be in a very, very difficult position with the WTO," Gilles Hervio, head of the European Commission delegation in Senegal, told a news conference in the capital Dakar.
"If we make progress, if things have moved forward ... I think we will be in a very strong position with the WTO to say we need a little more time, and to negotiate a postponement — but only a few months," Hervio said.
ECOWAS heads of state and ministers have proposed extending the current trade terms by two or three years to allow more time to reach a new deal but the countries agreed in Brussels in February to work towards the end-of-year deadline.
Hervio said that even if December 31 slipped, it was important to work towards the deadline so as not to lose momentum.
"If we say there is no date, in five years we will find ourselves in exactly the same position," he said.
"WATCHING THE CLOCK"
Criticism has mounted in recent months over the EU’s insistence that the agreements be signed by December 31.
UK-based aid agency Oxfam International called on Wednesday for Brussels to offer preferential trade terms to ACP countries under the same enhanced "generalised system of preferences" scheme it has for some other countries, mainly in Latin America.
Oxfam and fellow campaign group Third World Network Africa said that would allow the negotiation of a better deal.
"As the deadline draws close, exporters are becoming alarmed at the prospects of facing high tariffs into the EU market. The EU appears to be ’watching the clock’, hoping that as pressure mounts, ACP countries will have no option but to accept their proposals," they said.
Hervio said he was studying the proposal.
Most ECOWAS member states will see little change after December 31 even without a new deal, because they will still benefit from preferential exports under the EU’s Everything But Arms initiative for very poor countries.
But the region’s heavyweight economies, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana, are not eligible for the initiative, so some exports would be hit with increased tariffs.
Brussels has offered duty-free access to Europe for all EPA signatories, with interim exceptions only for rice and sugar.
The proposed deals also aim to phase out tariffs on ACP imports from Europe over a number of years, but depend on each regional bloc agreeing a common external tariff and a list of exempt products which will retain tariff protection.