Pacific trade ministers slam EU bullying in trade deal
Pacific trade ministers have slammed the European Union’s approach to negotiating a new trade deal with the Pacific island countries as divisive, harsh and unnecessarily domineering.
A resolution passed at a meeting of Pacific Island trade ministers and officials from the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat last month pointed out the “harsh and unnecessarily domineering attitude” of the European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson when Pacific trade ministers met with him to discuss negotiations for a new Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in late 2007.
The anger of the Pacific Island trade ministers is highlighted in letters between the Cook Islands Minister of Foreign Affairs Wilkie Rasmussen, and the EU’s top trade official, Trade Commissioner Mandelson. In those letters, Pacific trade ministers warn that the EU is pursuing a harmful strategy of divide and rule in negotiations for a new EPA with the Pacific Island states. The letters indicate Pacific trade ministers feel the EU forced Papua New Guinea and Fiji to sign an interim-EPA in late 2007 by threatening to raise tariffs on Pacific exports of tuna and sugar.
The concerns of Pacific trade ministers echo those of trade ministers in Africa, where some countries have been forced to initial interim-EPAs with the EU under a threat of tariff increases on key exports, while others have already said they will refuse to sign any EPA, because the deal would be bad for their national development.
Minister Rasmussen, who is also the co-president of the Joint Parliamentary Assembly between the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) and the EU, first complained about Trade Commissioner Mandelson’s “insensitivity” to the Pacific at the most recent ACP-EU Joint Parliament, held in Slovenia last month.
In response, Commissioner Mandelson wrote to Minister Rasmussen suggesting that Rasmussen had been misquoted and that he might consider making a public correction. Mandelson also threatened that if Pacific Ministers made more comments like these they would get less from the EPA negotiations. Mandelson wrote, “you are perfectly entitled to take a different view from me about the conduct and content of these negotiations. But personal and public attacks on your negotiating partner are unlikely to do much to improve the prospects of strengthening our relations looking forward”.
In Rasmussen’s reply, dated April 11, 2008, the minister re-iterated that comments made at the Joint Parliament “reflected the general feeling of the Pacific region that has dealt with you.” In strong diplomatic language, he wrote to Mandelson that "the common impression you left on all of the Pacific Island Trade Ministers and the PACP/Forum Secretariat was that you were insensitive to our protocols and issues, and the result was that division occurred between the Pacific Island Countries. I can assure you that the general feeling is that Papua New Guinea and Fiji initialled the Interim Agreement because of fear that they would lose their preferential trade arrangements with the European Union.”
Mr Rasmussen said he was trying to explain “why two countries of the Pacific initialled an agreement that the rest of the Pacific was not ready for”. He wrote, “the solidarity of the Pacific was our strength and you have managed to break that with your particular agenda in the negotiations".
The letters, made public today by the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), indicate that Pacific trade ministers have deep concerns about the negotiations for a new EPA between Europe and the Pacific. In November 2007, Papua New Guinea and Fiji initialled interim agreements in order to preserve access for their goods to the EU, but negotiations continue on unresolved issues, with the EU pushing for a comprehensive free trade deal with all Pacific governments by the end of 2008.
PANG coordinator Maureen Penjueli said the EU’s proposals for a new EPA meant Pacific governments would have to give away the policy space that allows governments to support local firms and suppliers, and to regulate widely to meet the social and environmental needs of Pacific peoples. She said a new EPA, which was designed to aid European big business and EU exporters, would also have implications for the ability of Pacific governments to meet their human rights obligations - particularly the right to the highest attainable standards of health, the right to housing, and access to essential services like water, health and education.
Mrs Penjueli called upon the EU to allow a re-negotiation of the interim agreements with PNG and Fiji, adding that in forcing PNG and Fiji to sign, the EU had ignored its commitments to the Pacific under the Cotonou Agreement. Ms Penjueli also called on Pacific ministers to listen to the concerns of Pacific civil society, and to refuse to sign any new EPA.
“The Pacific is under no legal obligation to conclude an EPA with the European Union,” said Ms Penjueli. “This deal is actually about the EU making sure it still has access to raw materials from all of its ex-colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Europeans want to make sure raw materials are not diverted to trade rivals like China, or even to value-adding processes in the ACP countries themselves.”
She said that if it really was in the Pacific’s development interest to reduce trade ‘barriers’ in particular areas, then Pacific governments “could do so at any time they liked.” “A binding agreement designed by a foreign power [the EU], and potentially leading to massive pressure for trade liberalisation from Australia and New Zealand, is frankly unnecessary and detrimental to the realisation of the Pacific’s development interests,” said Ms Penjueli.
Source - Pacific Network on Globalisation, Suva, Fiji Islands
Letters available at: www.pang.org.fj