We recognise the potential benefits, and currently a substantial majority of ACP countries are involved in varying forms of regional economic integration initiatives. However, regional integration is still at an early stage in most regions, and opening to EU imports before regional markets have been consolidated could undermine rather than support the process. For example, in most ACP sub-regions, adjacent states are largely confined to the production of the same limited basket of primary commodities for export outside the region. Market infrastructure and institutional frameworks tend to have an outward orientation, and the intra-regional enabling environments for trade tend to be weak.
These realities add up to a lack of immediate complementarily of neighbouring states for intraregional trade. Without first addressing these structural weaknesses in a way that leads to increased economies of scale and regional economic integration within developing countries negotiating blocs, there is little possibility of equitable economic exchange with an economic giant like the EU.
Further complications are presented by the fact that many ACP countries belong to more than one trade agreement, and yet through the EPA process they are being forced to choose one bloc through which to negotiate with the EU. For example, in East and Southern Africa (ESA) many countries have overlapping membership in the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), in addition to smaller blocs like the East African Community (EAC) and Southern African Customs Union (SACU).
Such trade arrangements can promote the pooling of resources, expanded markets, increased intra-regional trade and investment, and greater diversification and value addition. In turn they can reduce dependency on a small number of Northern markets and diminish vulnerability to a downturn in those markets. Moreover, in the longer term such regional projects could place countries in a stronger position to trade in higher value-added products on a more level playing field with major trading partners like the EU.
Therefore as Civil society we will continue to work with parliamentarians, governments, and the European Commission to contribute to a positive outcome of these negotiations that will create a fairer trading relationship and bring about genuine benefits and economic opportunities for poor people.