The European Union (EU) and the 76 members of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states are currently re-negotiating trade agreements that will define their future commercial relations now that the policy of preferential access to European markets that began with the Lome Convention in 1976 has finally come to an end.
Lome provided ACP agricultural and mineral producers with duty-free access to EU markets, and guaranteed quotas for sugar and beef farmers. But under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules that came into force in 2000, the convention was found to discriminate against open competition, particularly from Latin American producers of bananas, rice and sugar, and to contravene the basic principles of free trade. It had to go.
The Cotonou Agreement that same year gave the ACP states seven more years to adapt to the new trading architecture before the Lome regime was abandoned. The Cotonou waiver came to an end on 31 December 2007, however, leaving many countries with no option but to sign up provisionally to the new EU trading regime, if they wished to avoid disrupting their existing trade with the bloc's 27 states. The Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), as the new template is known, has since become the latest episode in the polemic over precisely what blend of liberalisation, aid and protectionism is needed to promote sustainable development and reduce poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
For leading critics of Europe's trade policy, such as Oxfam and Actionaid, the EPA offers yet another example of how the EU abuses its vast negotiating power and aid budget to isolate individual states, and open their markets to unfair penetration by European farmers and manufacturers.
"The current deals strip ACP countries of some of the very tools they need to develop," Oxfam argues in a briefing paper on EPAs, entitled Partnership or Power Play? "They require ACP farmers and businesses to compete under similar rules as European producers without seriously tackling the manifold competitiveness constraints they face.
"They tie the hands of ACP governments, forbidding them from using a variety of the trade and investment measures needed to make openness work to create decent jobs and livelihoods. And they give new rights to European investors at the cost of local businesses and public interest."
Worse yet, Oxfam accused the European Commission (EC) of using the WTO deadline to threaten African exporters with...