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Time to revive active structures for EPA civil society and EU disagree on sticking points

The Statesman (Accra)

Time to revive active structures for EPA civil society and EU disagree on sticking points

Suleiman Mustapha, 12/09/2007

Amidst controversy, trade liberalisation is fast gaining prominence in Sub-Saharan Africa as the December deadline for the signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement draws near.

This is attributed partly to the wave of globalisation, regional and bilateral agreements and mainly, pressure from the World Trade Organisation and the European Union.

While Trade Ministers in the ECOWAS sub region are unanimous against the December date and have requested a three-year extension of the deadline, the European Union is keen on sticking to the date.

Civil Society Organisations from the Sub-region that met in Accra to draft recommendations and proposals on the controversial free trade agreement with the European Union for the consideration of African Trade Ministers have accused the ECOWAS Secretariat of betrayal.

But the entrenched positions taken by the European Union and Pressure groups in the sub-region is mainly due to the lack of national institutional structures among the member countries to monitor the progress of the EPA negotiations.

In Ghana, the Trade Ministry officially oversees all government trade negotiations with an inter-institutional committee which was established to follow all trade negotiations and which is supposed to bring different institutions from different stakeholders on board.

"But that committee is almost dead. They don’t invite us to come and say this is our national position on EPAs and what to do. The only time they talked to us was when they brought the EU services paper and they asked us to comment on it," said Tetteh Hormeku, Head of Programmes of the Third World Network, an advocacy organisation leading the campaign against EPA’s.

"The institutional committee is not working and everything is centered in the ministry. Its only civil society organization who by ourselves has established our own economic desk network which gives civil society voice in the struggle," Mr Hormeku said.

"Ministry of Trade sources that spoke to The Statesman on condition of anonymity said as far as the ministry is concerned, we know that government through the Ministry has been formulating its negotiating position half of which civil society groups disagree with. It has carried out some impact studies and commissioned studies but we don’t know the fullness of them officially", the source said.

According to the source, consultants working on the EPA study have cautioned government against negotiating for the EPA because they are bad.

But there is a study done by the Economic Commission for Africa that has done a study which is applicable to Ghana . IMF and World Bank have done studies for Kenya which has same characteristics as Ghana .

Civil society have also done theirs called the GSP looking at Ghana . From that study and experiences, they have also cautioned government against EPA’s and opted for the General System of Preferences as stated in Cotonou Agreement to which government has not responded except by saying that "the EU has agreed and is willing to be flexible" in the negotiations.

Ghana ’s Trade negotiator, Mr Bera Wusi, is also frustrated because EPA materials do not get to him on time from the sub regional secretariat for him to read and analyse. Sometimes the materials are all in French but he does not speak French. He sits in meetings held in French and has been denied an interpreter.

The structure is set up theoretically well but its workings and operations undermine his participation. He does not get materials in advance to prepare and get no timely translations. Even after taking decisions, the ECOWAS secretariat undermines it.

The secretariat is obliged to provide bilingual services but they are deliberately not doing it. The state should insist on their right. Ghana has got more to lose than Niamey . The secretariat has nothing to lose. So Ghana , Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire who are going to lose should insist on their right.

Judgment of civil society;

Structures for the negotiations at the regional level are usurping the mandates that the ministers have given them. On three occasions, ministers gave them mandate and they changed them ministers wanted a three year extension to the deadline but they colluded with the European Commission and changed it to December.

Ministers also wanted investments, competition and government procurement not included in the EPA’s and they colluded with the EU to include investment and competition and are now including procurement also.

"The negotiation structures are undermining our sovereignty because they are not taking the lead from their national governments. Civil Servants are not treated with respect. Even our own parliament is treated with disrespect what about us?" remarked Tetteh Hormeku of TWN.

At the Accra meeting, the group representing various interests in the sub- region burnt the midnight oil to agree on certain issues to be considered by their Ministers in their negotiations with the European Union on the yet-to-be-signed Economic Partnership Agreement.

According to the group, the sub regional body is deliberately thwarting their effort at negotiating for a fair and balanced trade pact with the EU.

Spokesperson for the organisations, Ken Ukaoha, President of the National Association of Nigerian Traders told The Statesman in an interview that key recommendations agreed after a marathon meeting with high profile government officials in the sub-region have been deleted from the final text of the civil society proposals to the African Trade Ministers.

Among their request to the Ministers was a suspension of talks on the Economic Partnership Agreement to allow for grassroots consultations, cost benefit analysis of the pact, and the time lap for the implementation of the Agreement.

Civil Society Groups participating in the just-ended meeting of the West Africa Ministerial Monitoring Committee of the Economic Partnership Agreement, say they are disappointed by the ’indecisiveness’ of ECOWAS trade ministers in not instituting transitional regimes in case of a deadlock in the current negotiations.

Usually, trade liberalization entails a reduction and unification of tariffs and relaxation of quantitative barriers. Trade liberalization could stifle the domestic economy by killing the infant (or uncompetitive) industries which will be exposed to unfair competition from their counterparts in the rest of the world.

Trade liberalization, particularly in the agricultural sector, may have dire consequences for the liberalizing economy in terms of poverty and food security directly or indirectly.

The rice industry in Ghana provides a vivid example of the effect of trade liberalization. For instance, rice imports since 1983 have been consistently above 100,000 metric tonnes and rising. Ghana imported over $730 million of rice between 1991 and 2002. In terms of tonnage Ghanaian rice imports averaged 281,000 metric tonnes between 1998 and 2003.

But a release from the European Commission in Accra said, "We can’t extend the existing system - the only legal alternative to EPA that we have is called the Generalised System of Preferences or "GSP". This offers much less generous market access, unless a country is classed as "Least Developed" by the United Nations - which Ghana is not.

One myth currently doing the rounds is that Ghana qualifies for a special arrangement called "GSP+". This, sadly, is not true as access to GSP+ depends on conditions linked to ratifying key international conventions on human rights and development. Not only has Ghana yet to complete these ratifications but there is a waiting list of countries that already have and the process is a lengthy one, with disruptive effects on existing shipping and contract arrangements" .

This means that, with no EPA, key Ghanaian exports like aluminium, pineapples, cocoa and tuna will be more expensive in EU markets from next January. Nobody wants this, least of all the EU consumers that buy these products. This is why we are striving for an agreement by the end of the year.

The second myth is the claim that EPAs won’t be fair. They will open ACP markets to EU trade at the expense of local businesses, and local growth. EPAs won’t mean "free trade" with Ghana from January 1st next year, or any time soon. In fact the Economic Partnership Agreements are not free trade agreements in the usual sense. Usually an FTA means both sides open their markets to the same degree. That won’t happen with EPAs.

The Delegation of the European Commission in Ghana said there will be no more customs duties on the EU side, no more quotas - full stop. Ghana won’t be asked to match this offer and West Africa will be able to protect sensitive markets and use long transition times to phase in change.

During this transition time, the EU will provide technical and financial support to help with implementation of the new arrangements. The EPAs will stimulate local and regional markets and open new opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

There are claims that the EU is looking out only for its own commercial interests with EPAs - but the EU trades less with all of sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) than it does with South Korea alone. Even in the highly contentious area of investment, the EU’s chief concern is putting in place the rules that will help Ghana attract the new capital it urgently needs.

The real benefits of EPAs are not in market access for Europe. We all need African economies that are strong internally, strong in the region and capable of attracting investment. A weak Ghana is hardly in Europe’s interests.

Certainly, the EPA negotiations force us to face up to difficult issues. We are rebuilding an economic relationship that has been in place for many years. But that relationship, based on preferences and commodity trade has largely failed to deliver development and it is time to take the bold step to something new.

It is essential that there is strong debate over EPAs-the European Union welcome the many voices raised in Accra and elsewhere. But to suggest that Economic Partnership Agreements are a danger to African development is misleading and wrong. The EPAs are not a threat to development; they are an opportunity not to miss and a valuable tool to achieve development.

 source: Statesman