“WE recognise the equally important dimension of regional integration for growth and development and commit to conclude Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that support socio-economic development, regional integration and the integration of Africa into global economy….”
This was the statement that African leaders issued after a recent meeting in Libya between the African Union and the European Union (EU) on EPAs.
EPAs represent a provision of the Contonou Agreement, a development partnership between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries coming after the 25-year-old Lome Convention.
Article 37 of the Cotonou Agreement provides for the negotiation of EPAs as a reciprocal trading arrangement.
In this way the EU would like to see ACP countries reciprocating their access to the EU market by removing trade and tariff barriers for the EU exports to the partnering countries.
While the Lome Convention was between the EU and ACP as a collective, the Cotonou Agreement wants separation of ACP, where Africa would be on its own while Caribbean and Pacific countries would pursue their own agreements.
Right from the beginning it is noted that the strength derived from the collective has been reduced so the African country are more vulnerable to the arm-twisting tactics of the EU.
Not even the African Union, Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) or any other regional economic communities are negotiating EPAs as established bodies.
The officials of our governments and those serving in the sub regional organisations like Sadc argue that it is the choice of individual countries to belong to different EPAs.
They also deny that the EU is forcing individual African countries to make far-reaching concessions.
Basotho know Sadc as a legitimate body to which they belong.
It is in this body that the Free Trade Area agreements and many other regional integration processes are negotiated.
In the EPAs Lesotho is standing in the same corner with Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Tanzania.
These are all Sadc members.
Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana belong to the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu).
Why are these negotiations not done through Sadc?
From the viewpoint of civil society organisations this is a tactic used by EU to further weaken the bargaining power of these countries.
The EU does not want to see EPAs being treated within the already existing regional integration framework decided by these countries lest its hidden neo-liberal agenda is counteracted by the development approach designed by the countries themselves.
It is true that Sadc member countries belong to different organisations like Sacu, Comesa and EAC.
Yet that does not justify having several EPA configurations.
Although there are configurations for negotiations, EU (a group of many countries) still wants to sign the EPAs at bilateral level with each country.
This is being done by the EU to complete the manipulation strategy.
Our governments have not listened to the civil society organisations in their “Stop EPAs Campaign”.
The campaign is based on the premise that home-brewed integration policy development will, to some extent, weather the immoral globalisation of capitalism.
The impulsive signing of the interim EPAs by the Lesotho government has all but compromised Sacu, the very economic body that has sustained Lesotho for years.
That they have ignored warnings by civic organisations that they are falling for the EU’s divide and rule tactics is a clear indication that our government is hostile to influence by non-state actors.
This susceptibility to manipulation has even undermined the much praised concept of the government being a rational and unitary actor because the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning was equally surprised that the Ministry of Trade and Industry signed the Interim EPAs.
Why is civil society calling for a stop to EPAs?
The rationale is that the EU is far advanced than ACP countries to make a reciprocal arrangement between the two workable.
Given the economic gap between the two the relationship will be akin to that of a servant and master.
Although the EU will open its market the quality standards and requirements for certification to export to its member countries will be too stringent for the poor countries in the south.
The EU is trying to use EPA negotiations to achieve what it failed to achieve under the World Trade Organisation.
The civil society in Africa should revitalise the campaign to hold leaders to account and ensure that these EPA negotiation configurations are harmonised with the existing regional trade agreements.
This shall ensure that the home grown regional integration is enhanced.
It is up to the leaders of African countries to realise that civil society does not necessarily act as a midwife for regime change as they are persuaded to believe but a source of wisdom that is normally free from the greenroom discussions characterising WTO conferences and others where negotiators are arm-twisted in isolation from the groups.
It is amazing that Sadc has a technical advisor on EPA negotiations from EU yet they cannot even hear what civil society says.
The collective political, legal, economic, socio-economic and environmental dimensions that are crucial to create fully functional, comprehensive and well-rooted regional development processes are in the making.
But EPAs’ emphasis on trade, investment and services liberalisation will undoubtedly reinforce the neo-liberal recasting and the re-direction of the African RECs that will not benefit the ordinary citizens of our continent.
EPAs must be stopped.