Columnists

The bad and the ugly of UK trade deal

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President Kenyatta meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • As part of that post-Brexit arrangements, Kenya has signed an economic pact with the UK.
  • The signing of the pact has raised concerns in the country, with a group of small-scale farmers and a local civil society organisation, Econews Africa, leading the protests. 
  • Parliamentarians too have threatened to shoot down the agreement.

When the United Kingdom pulled out of the European Union a few months ago it was clear the implications would be felt across the globe. Kenya, as a trading partner of the UK, has had to think about life post-Brexit. The reason for this is that as part of the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, there were negotiations under the Cotonou Partnerships Agreements for a trade relationship with the European Union. Named, an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), the negotiations were intended to grant goods from ACP preferential access to the EU market.

As part of that post-Brexit arrangements, Kenya has signed an economic pact with the UK. However, the signing of the pact has raised concerns in the country, with a group of small-scale farmers and a local civil society organisation, Econews Africa, leading the protests, including filing a constitutional reference and petitioning Parliament to reject the pact. Parliamentarians too have threatened to shoot down the agreement.

These debates reminded me of my time working on economic partnership agreements in early 2000s. Then working for a German political foundation based in Kenya, we partnered with Econews Africa and other organisations and parliamentarians in East Africa, including the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) on trade negotiations. The first key issue that stands out for me from those years is the importance of the East African regional bloc approaching international negotiations as a single bloc. Second, is the place of legislators in the process of such negotiations.

During the initial EPA negotiations between ACP countries and the EU, East African countries were initially in different regional blocs, with Tanzania being in SADC and Kenya and Uganda in Comesa. The debate was how to protect the interests of the EAC as a community if the countries negotiated an EPA with the EU in different regions.

Efforts to have the three countries move into negotiating as EAC were rebuffed, with no less than a one-time EU Trade Commissioner telling a delegation of East African MPs, which I had the privilege of accompanying on a trip to Brussels, that the EAC was too small an entity to negotiate on its own. However, this did not deter local efforts, including adoption by EALA of a Joint Trade Negotiations Law calling for such a negotiation. The result was the agreement for EAC to be a joint trade bloc.

It makes sense for EAC to act as such, with its move from a single customs union to a common market to discussions on feasibility of having both a monetary union and federation in the future. It is thus disconcerting that the negotiations with the UK only partially paid attention to EAC. While the agreement provides for EAC countries wishing to do so to accede to the treaty by submitting such a request, the fact that they are not party to the deal detracts from the EAC aspirations.

One can argue that Kenya had to move with speed due to its different status as a developing country. It stood to lose more than its neighbours in EAC who by virtue of being least developed have a relationship allowing them to have their products, except arms, access the UK markets even without a formal agreement.

This, however, does not take away the need for an economic partnership agreement — something that even the current Kenya-UK deal acknowledges. The EAC has been going through a rough patch and hopefully the appointment of a new secretary-general will help revitalise the relationships and performance of the regional body. A look at this deal and its implications on EAC integration must form part of the top priorities for Peter Mathuki, the new secretary-general.

Unlike when the initial EPA negotiations were started with the EU, the current deal is taking place in a post-2010 constitutional arrangement. The one thing that the Kenyan government should have contended with is the requirement of ratification of such agreements by Parliament. The essence of this is to give the people of Kenya an opportunity to participate in determining the international relationship that such an agreement portends.