On 29-30 October, more than thirty civil society representatives, researchers and academics gathered in Harare, Zimbabwe for a two-day regional workshop on “The Interface Between Trade and Regional Partnership Agreements – Cotonou, AGOA, WTO and NEPAD”. The workshop was organised by the Consumer Unity and Trust Society-Africa (CUTS- ARC) Lusaka, Mwengo (Zimbabwe) and the Institute of Global Dialogue (South Africa). The discussions focused on the on-going negotiation processes of African trade agreements in the context of the continent’s prospects for development. The aim of the workshop was to shed light on some of the issues at stake in the various negotiations in which Africa is involved and the development benefits of schemes such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
The workshop noted that whereas the EU was the driving force behind new negotiations between Europe and the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries — due to its heightened understanding of its relationship with the ACP — the same could not be said about the ACP countries themselves. Because of this lack of clarity, workshop participants said, it has been deemed unlikely that the ACP region will draw as much benefit from eventual ACP-EU Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) as might be expected. Negotiations for WTO-compatible EPAs under the Cotonou Agreement were launched in September between the two groups of countries (see Bridges Monthly, October 2002, www.ictsd.org/monthly/index.html).
Negotiations in Brussels contain several proposals for the further opening up of African economies. However, according to the final communiqué from the workshop, “some of the proposals in the EPA agenda such as trade and labour standards, policies governing investment, competition and intellectual property rights are contradictory to the positions of African countries at the WTO. At the WTO, they have refused to discuss new issues such as labour standards, trade and environment and multilateral rules on investment. But they have agreed to do so under the Cotonou Agreement.” According to workshop participants, this is of concern for African countries because not only are both sets of negotiations going on simultaneously, but the EU has much greater leverage and influence at the WTO, threatening to weaken the bargaining potential of African countries in the new round of WTO negotiations.
The workshop also identified some of the problems with the EU’s EPA proposals, in particular that they are aimed at dividing the ACP by region and by levels of development instead of by common economic interests. As a result, meeting participants noted, African countries could be forced to take divergent positions on similar issues, lending advantage to the EU in the negotiations. According to Professor Jasper Okelo of the University of Nairobi, the geographical configurations required by the Cotonou Agreement in forming EPAs “are a difficult and complex issue that needs time and mobilisation of political will to sort out”. This is partly due to overlaps in the trade and economic groupings among the ACP, he said.
For a state-of-play of the EU-ACP EPA negotiations, visit EPAwatch at: www.epawatch.net/general/start.php.
Regarding NEPAD and the WTO, the workshop noted that there were areas of overlap and therefore a need for greater coordination. The areas of overlap were identified as springing from their underlying economic ideology, with the emphasis on trade as the preferred engine for growth in developing countries.
Regarding the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA, see
(www.agoa.gov/About_AGOA/about_agoa.html) trade arrangement between the US and 34 African countries, there was a consensus among the experts that several issues of concern have arisen. It was pointed out that AGOA’s rules of origin are in contradiction with WTO rules, and that while there are many preferences under AGOA, its time frame was seen to be too short for countries to develop the needed infrastructure so as to maximise their benefit from the trade arrangement. Further, AGOA is not a partnership arrangement, as there was little African involvement in its preparation. The workshop concluded that: “countries in the region need to focus on developing a comprehensive national development strategy and appropriate trade policy package instead of focusing their energies on sectoral and divisive programmes such as Cotonou, AGOA and NEPAD.” In this regard, the workshop called for greater advocacy and public education on the contents of and issues at stake in the various trade negotiations of which African countries are participants.