Fair trade agreements - important issue for newly elected MEPs

Trade policy is an important issue for the development of poor countries. Despite this, the issue has hardly been debated before the EU election. The agreements with African countries are on the agenda this autumn, the Swedish EU parliamentarians should then ensure that the EU's trade agreements with developing countries promote sustainable and fair development, Gabi Björsson and Annica Sohlström believe.

Trade agreements that the EU concludes with other countries or regions must now be approved by the elected EU parliamentarians. When the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in December 2009, trade policy was one of the new areas in which the European Parliament gained decision-making power.

The EU's trade agreements with African countries, the so-called EPAs, are controversial. Negotiations on EPAs have been going on for more than ten years now and have led to great frustration and anger among many politicians and civil society organizations in African countries. The EU's stubborn demands and unwillingness to be flexible in the negotiations have become a serious stumbling block in EU-Africa relations. An important task for MEPs is to work for greater flexibility on the part of the Commission.

2014 is a crucial year in the negotiations. The EU has set a deadline of 1 October with the aim of putting pressure on the African countries that have not yet concluded agreements. Countries that are not classified as 'Least Developed Countries' (LDCs), and which did not start ratifying the agreements then, will lose their duty - free access to the European market. The poorest countries have duty-free access to the EU market via another EU program (Everything But Arms).

The EPAs will bring about significant changes in African countries' trade relations with the EU. In the past, countries in Africa could sell most goods duty-free to European markets without having to provide corresponding benefits to the EU. The EPA agreements mean that African countries must abolish customs duties on a majority of their goods from the EU, which reduces the scope for protecting strategic sectors, including emerging manufacturing industries. For Ghana, there are 43 jobs at risk, according to the country's leading political party. The EU also demands that African countries limit the use of export taxes, which several countries consider to be important instruments for promoting local processing of raw materials. The EPA agreements thus threaten the countries' future political room for maneuver in order to promote their own development.

The regional markets constitute a large and important development potential for African countries, as this is where most of their processed goods are exported. African countries mainly export raw materials to the EU. The EPA negotiations were intended to build on and strengthen regional integration in Africa. However, increased imports of European goods will also compete with local products in regional markets and threaten to undermine trade with neighboring countries. Kenya, for example, sells 67 percent of its manufactured goods to countries in eastern and southern Africa, compared with 9 percent to the EU. Kenya risks losing 15 percent of its trade with neighboring countries under an EPA agreement, which would threaten the country's manufacturing industry. The deadline in the negotiations, which the EU set despite protests from many African countries, also risks pitting countries within the same region against each other and splitting regions. The countries that are not among the poorest may be pressured to sign unfavorable EPAs just to preserve their trade benefits to the EU. This includes Namibia, Kenya, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Botswana and Cameroon.

African countries have repeatedly protested against EU demands in the negotiations and pointed out their positions in official declarations, most recently at an African trade ministerial meeting in Addis Ababa at the end of April. "We must not sign an agreement without first conducting a thorough economic analysis of the consequences for the region, our children and future generations," said Nigeria's Minister of Trade, supported by Zambia and Niger, among others. The African Union Trade Commissioner also supported these views. "As long as the EU insists on EPA agreements in their current form, Africa should not agree to them, but look at alternatives to EPAs," said Fatima Haram Acyl.

Why has the European Commission not listened to the African countries? Despite the fact that these are trade agreements with some of the world's poorest countries and despite the fact that the EU has always claimed that these are 'development-friendly' agreements, the EU has pursued its own agenda and its offensive interests hard. The Committee on Development in the European Parliament has on several occasions criticized the Commission for the process of the EPA negotiations. Among other things, the committee called on Parliament to vote against the Commission's proposal within a time limit. The members of the Development Committee considered that the conclusion of the negotiations should be governed by the content and not by time frames.

The European Parliament and its Members have an important role to play in EU trade policy. It is not just a matter of approving trade agreements that the EU concludes with the outside world, but it is also an important task to continuously review the Commission's implementation of trade policy. The Swedish EU parliamentarians should work to ensure that the EU shows flexibility in the EPA negotiations both in terms of the content of the agreements and the application of the deadline, 1 October this year, so that African countries are not pressured into concluding trade agreements that risk negative consequences for their development. .

Gabi Björsson

Secretary-General, African Groups

Annica Sohlström

Secretary General, Forum South





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