On 21 June 2012, the Trade Committee of the European Parliament (EP) called on the EC to allow a further 2 years for the completion of the EPA negotiations, shifting the proposed deadline for completion to 1 January 2016 and enabling ACP states ‘to ratify their EPAs before losing the right to duty-and-quota-free access to the EU’. The Committee noted that the EC proposal would involve switching 8 of the 36 countries that benefited from the 2007 market access regulation to other less advantageous preference schemes. The eight affected countries are Botswana, Namibia, Cameroon, Fiji, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Swaziland. MEPs maintained that ‘these countries are still grappling with development needs and poverty and would be hit by sharply reduced access to EU markets and therefore need until 2016 to prepare for the EPAs.’ The rapporteur of the Committee argued that ‘2014 is simply not a fair or realistic deadline’, but equally noted that ‘unlimited preferences was not a sustainable option either’.
The draft legislative resolution was passed by 25 votes to 2, with 2 abstentions.
EPAs were also discussed at the 95th session of the ACP Council of Ministers in June 2012. The resolution adopted highlighted the range of contentious issues outstanding, including ‘the definition of substantially all trade and time frames for liberalisation, rules of origin, MFN clause, export taxes, trade distorting domestic and export subsidies, additionality of resources, quantitative restrictions, relations with countries that are in a customs union with the European Union (including Turkey, St Martin and Andorra), development of benchmarks, indicators and targets for monitoring the implementation of the agreements non-execution clause’.
The resolution also expressed concern at the EC’s introduction of new issues and the continued commitment of the EC to the full adoption of its proposal of September 2011 to amend Market Access Regulation (MAR) 1528/2007.
The ACP stressed the importance of resolving contentious issues and called on the EC ‘to lower its ambitions and consider seriously the level of economic development of its ACP negotiating partners with a view to concluding an inclusive EPA that will attract joining by all States within a given region’. The resolution also stressed the importance of the EC ‘urgently and positively’ responding to the Pacific ACP states’ EPA proposals.
The ACP rejected the basis for the September 2011 EC proposals to amend MAR 1528/2007, observing that no WTO Member had complained about the current transitional arrangements, given that negotiations were in progress.
The vote of the EP Trade Committee follows a similar vote by the EP Development Committee. The issue will now go to the European Parliament’s plenary session in September 2012. Given the balance of the vote in the Trade Committee, this now seems likely to become the position of the Parliament. The debate on the EC proposal will then shift to the EU Council. Should no agreement with the parliamentary position emerge from the Council, a reconciliation process will then be undertaken to establish a consensus position.
While it thus remains far from clear whether the EC proposal for the modification of MAR 1528/2007 will be adopted in its current form, the EP view was clear that the current impasse in the EPA negotiations cannot be sustained indefinitely.
These events raise the issue of what can now be done at the level of the Parliament, or of government-to-government discussions, to address the substantive issues that underlie the reluctance of individual ACP governments to conclude the EPA process.
The challenge appears to be to clearly identify these issues and establish mechanisms to substantively address underlying ACP concerns in ways that allow member governments of ACP regional groupings to move ahead with the conclusion of the EPA process at the regional level. This is particularly important in those regions, such as the SACU and the EAC, where functioning regional customs unions are in place which could be undermined by a failure to conclude the EPA process at the regional level. It is particularly important in the agri-food sector, since in a number of instances areas of contention relate to the use of agricultural trade policy tools (e.g. the definition of ‘substantially all trade’, export licences, infant industry protection, agricultural safeguards and export taxes).