The African Caribbean and Pacific countries are being warned of overlapping trade regimes because of lack of a standard timetable for the signing of new economic pacts with Europe.
And it is the ACP secretariat raising the alarm, saying the situation could interfere with ACP-EU trade ties.
“This state of affairs, which results in multiplicity of trade regimes between ACP regions and the European Union, does not bode well for strengthening of ACP-EU trade relations. Moreover, the unity and solidarity of the ACP Group is likely to be eroded,” Mr John Kaputin, the secretary-general of the ACP Group, said in statement on Tuesday.
Statistics show that so far only 25 ACP countries have either signed full or interim economic partnership agreements (EPAs) with the EU while 11 others, including Kenya, had initialled the deals but not signed a framework on the agreements.
Another 42 countries from the bloc are yet to make any steps in landing new deals with Europe — nearly 20 months after the expiry of the previous pacts that guided trade between the blocs.
A report by the ACP secretariat showed that the situation is even bumpier in Africa.
For instance, while all the five EAC member countries have initialled the process of signing a framework on the EPAs, on the West side, the Economic Community for West Africa States (Ecowas) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) members plus Mauritania, with the exception of Ghana and Ivory Coast, have not started the process of initialling the signing of a framework on the deals. Only Ivory Coast has both initialled and signed an interim EPA.
Mr Kaputin, however, urged for caution even as the negotiations progressed to avoid lapses that could jeopardise the attainment of critical aspects such as aid for trade.
“The time constraint that was imposed by Cotonou trade regime and the WTO waiver is no longer an impediment to pursuing further negotiations,” the official said. “The chief negotiators should remain engaged and seek better outcomes especially because we have noted that a number of contentious clauses remain in the initialled and signed interim EPAs.”
Trade relations between ACP countries and the EU had since the 1980s been based on non-reciprocal preferences that granted nearly all products originating from the ACP countries duty-free access to the European market.
The targets of the preferential terms, however, failed to resonate with the fortunes of the ACPs whose share in the EU total imports instead decline over the years amid marginalisation at the global level.
To tackle this anomaly, the two blocs sought to have an alternative trade arrangement with pressure coming from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to shift from the non-reciprocal trade.
This saw the ACPs and the EU agree through a partnership signed in Cotonou, in 2001, to establish a new regime in form of EPAs which were to be concluded between willing ACP countries and the European Commission (EC) by December 31, 2007.
But, during the intervening period until December 31, the EU offered to provide non-reciprocal, duty-free market access to all ACP countries, except South Africa.
The non-reciprocal trading arrangement was based on the WTO waiver, which was granted at the fourth ministerial conference in Doha in November 2001.
Most ACPs including Kenya were, however, unable to beat the December 31, 2007 date, forcing them to either sign interim agreements with the EU or initial the process to avoid disruption of trade.
Kenya and other EAC members are among countries that initialled the process of reaching an agreement and are currently in talks with the EU to sign a framework on the EPAs.
So far in the Caribbean region, Haiti is the only country that is yet to sign the full regional EPA with the EU.
This is contrasted across the sea in the Pacific where only one country, Papua New Guinea, has signed the interim EPA. Fiji which initialled an interim agreement is yet to sign while all the others have neither initialled nor signed.
“In Central Africa, Cameroon is the only country that has signed an interim EPA. In the East and Southern Africa (ESA) and Souther Africa Development Community (SADC) EPA regions, the picture is mixed. In ESA, four countries have signed an interim EPA, one country has initialled an interim agreement while six are yet to initial or sign any agreement,” the secretariat said.
In the SADC EPA, four countries have so far signed an interim EPA, one has initialled but not signed while one country is yet to initial or sign any agreement.
The other country in the region is South Africa which has a separate trade arrangement but has participated in the regional EPA.