www.fijitimes.com - Sunday, October 21, 2007
AS the deadline for a new trade deal with the European Union approaches, the question on people's minds is: Are developing countries in the Pacific still willing to play?
Europe is negotiating new free trade deals with 76 ex-colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP countries).
For decades, ACP countries have had a preferential trading arrangement with the EU, recognising the development challenges facing ACP countries.
Preferential trading arrangements also acknowledge the historical debt owed by European nations for hundreds of years of colonial exploitation which helped to grow Europe's own economy.
But now negotiations are underway to replace those trading agreements with a model that is compatible with the trade rules of the World Trade Organisation.
The EU is offering new trade and development agreements, called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), to six ACP regions the Caribbean, West Africa, East and Southern Africa, Central Africa and the Pacific.
Leaders in the Pacific entered the EPA process in good faith, believing the EPA was about a real economic partnership and providing new avenues for sustainable development. They worked hard to develop a balanced and pro-development EPA legal text which was presented to the EU in mid-2006.
It took the EU 15 months to get back to the Pacific and when they did, the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat complained their draft was "lacking in a number of critical details".
The secretariat said the EU's offer set out the European demands while "reflecting almost none of the key written proposals" of the Pacific countries.
The EU's draft EPA text was a slightly amended version of an EPA proposal put to one of the African ACP regions which only added to suspicions the EU was not genuinely interested in pro-development proposals being put forward by the Pacific island countries.
Turning the screws
As time runs out, (the EU claims December 31, 2007 is an absolute deadline for EPA negotiations) West African trade ministers have said it would be impossible to conclude an inclusive and balanced trade deal by the end of the year and are backing out of the negotiating timeline.
However, the EU has continued to turn the screws on Pacific negotiators to try and squeeze out a face-saving deal by refusing to guarantee continued preferential market access if the Pacific doesn't sign up before the end of the year.
In a divide and rule move, the EU has also unilaterally denounced the Sugar Protocol in the final months of negotiations.
This has forced Fiji into a corner, because if Fiji wants to continue to enjoy preferential market access for sugar exports, Fiji must negotiate sugar as part of the EPA, abandoning a "red line" position of Pacific-wide unity in trade negotiations.
This week, the EU spokesman for trade, Peter Power, re-iterated the threat to reduce ACP export earnings if an EPA is not signed by the end of the year.
"If they are not signed by the end of the year, we will no longer be able to offer our current preferential access and will have to move to an alternative, which will give less market access in Europe for many ACP countries," said Mr Power.
The EU claims that it is a legal requirement of the WTO that they will have to raise tariffs on Pacific exports if the EPA is not signed this year.
However, a group of international development experts, including the coordinator of the economic and trade co-operation program at the European Centre for Development Policy Management and the head of Oxfam International, said on Thursday, "The Commission is incorrect to claim that it has no legal choice but to raise its tariffs in January 2008".
They said if the EU imposes a wide range of tariffs on many of the world's poorest nations, "it will be by choice, not by legal compulsion".
Pacific livelihoods will be threatened if the EU does choose to raise its tariffs at the end of the year.
For example, tuna from Papua New Guinea would be charged a 20 per cent duty on entry to the EU.
That would put the PNG fishing industry and thousands of jobs at risk.
The Pacific's own regional watchdog on trade, the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) said the EU was not behaving like a true development partner.
PANG coordinator Roshni Sami said Pacific leaders had shown again and again that the Pacific wants to work with EU to create real development partnership.
"But we need the time to find a trade deal that will actually have development outcomes," said Ms Sami.
Even the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon has said the EU was "creating a crisis" by placing undue pressure on its ex-colonies.
"This sort of thing is of concern to us because you are dealing with a heavyweight against many flyweights," said Mr McKinnon.
"They are not equal," he said.
"The deadline is all about creating a crisis, and in those situations the big guy is always going to win."
Pacific regional NGOs meeting in Tonga last week issued a strong statement to Pacific leaders, calling on them to stand up for the rights of Pacific people in the EPA negotiations.
The NGOs urged Pacific Ministers to adhere to 'red line' minimum negotiating positions and stressed the 'absolute necessity' for Pacific unity in the EPA negotiations, to prevent bilateral agreements dividing the Pacific's position.
The statement also called on Pacific trade ministers to take enough time for consultation and scrutiny of the implications of the EPA, including incorporating the results of a recent social impact assessment.
The Pacific has indicated they may be willing to sign an interim agreement on goods before the years end but Pacific NGOs are concerned this would undermine the Pacific's ability to get what it really wants out of the EPA.
Ms Sami said the EU's "staggeringly unfair" demands that any trade preferences granted to other nations be granted to the EU as well, indicated the EU was interested in free trade and not development and poverty reduction.
"Somehow we have to get Pacific leaders to put niceties aside and challenge our 'development partners' to stop trying to exploit our markets and give the Pacific a chance at achieving real development, good governance, gender equality and human security; because economic justice underlies all these things," said Ms Sami.
"We have to understand trade is important, because trading arrangements the Pacific has had in place in recent decades have provided wealth for a whole generation of Pacific Islanders and have helped provide for things like public education and public health."Signing a bad trade agreement will dramatically undercut our all of our futures." The author is the Information, Education and Communications Officer at the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), a regional NGO committed to fair trade in the Pacific.