Disagreement among ECOWAS member-states could hinder signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union, as poverty campaigners say the agreement will deprive poor countries of vital tariff income and may threaten their industries with tough or unfair competition such as imports from EU-subsidised farms.
“There are disagreements among us, and we have to resolve those sticky issues,” a top Ivorian government negotiator told B&FT on the sidelines of ECOWAS Ministerial Monitoring Committee meeting in Accra, but declined to give details or be identified.
“The biggest ECOWAS economy, Nigeria, has shunned any deal and its huge oil exports will be unaffected: other members-state like Ghana and Ivory Coast have signed interim agreements, so what is the way forward? We have a big problem,” the official added.
But Dr. Gbenga Obideyi, Director of Trade at ECOWAS, is optimistic. He said despite the disagreements, the negotiations have not stalled.
Dr. Obideyi told reporters that it would be wrong to suggest that the negotiations have stalled.
“In fact, stalling in terms of the years is not an issue; what we are looking for is quality favourable agreements that will foster regional integration. Indeed, the technical committee is working to go in for an agreement that benefits the region and the people,” he said.
“We are not going to sacrifice a good agreement on the altar of time.”
The EPAs agreement, which is being negotiated between ECOWAS and EU, seeks the establishment of a free trade area and elimination of import duties on products coming from member-countries in the two trading blocs.
Both the regional EPAs and the interim deals are expected to abolish tariffs immediately on most exports to Europe, and gradually phase out trade taxes on 80 percent of imported goods from Europe over periods of up to 15 years.
Broader aspects of an EPA includes the four controversial “Singapore issues” — investment, competition, government procurement, and trade facilitation.
Anti-poverty campaigners say this shift to the EPA will expose fragile industries in African nations to crushing competition from more modern, efficient EU-based firms.
Dr. Obideyi said the two parties are working to resolve the divergence issues, saying that many of the differences between the partners have been reduced to about four main issues with development funding a key one.
He disclosed that the position of the Heads of State of ECOWAS is clear on the development funding arrangement, adding that the EC Development Fund is a priority and conditionality for signing the EPA and that the experts will not compromise on the position.
“The funding arrangement remains a key point in the negotiation process with the ECOWAS Heads of State seeking a certain threshold of funding which the European Union is yet to give a positive response to,” he said.
He explained that the two parties are yet to agree on the level of market access and that the European Union is seeking more than the ECOWAS Ministers are ready to offer.
“These are critical thematic areas of the EPA on which we cannot compromise. Therefore stalling is not there; we are trying to get it right. Agreements are not something that you do on sentiments.”
ECOWAS negotiators under pressure
“I wish to encourage you to avoid the scenario where the non-conclusion of a regional EPA will result in a situation where member-states of ECOWAS would be involved in different trade regimes with the EU,” Hannah Tetteh, Minister of trade and Industry, told ECOWAS trade experts ahead of the ministerial meeting to start on Wednesday.
“This could damage the path to regional integration and defeat the purpose for which ECOWAS was established,” she said.