The controversial Economic Partnership Agreements that are being negotiated and signed between the European Union and various regional groupings in Africa will likely fundamentally change relations between the two continents if they are implemented. A lot of the controversy around the negotiations is because the two sides have very different ideas on whether the EPAs are a good thing or not.
The EU insists it wants them signed by December 31 because that is the World Trade Organization’s deadline for the EU to liberalise trade with its former colonies in the ACP countries. The WTO ruled in 2002 that the preferential trade terms (low or no tariffs on exports to the EU) Europe gave to those ACP countries was unfair to other developing countries trying to export their goods without such generous terms. It gave the EU until the end of this year to negotiate new trade terms with former colonies.
The African countries are all worried that the concessions the EU is asking of them to continue to have relatively low tariff access to EU markets would cripple them. A major one is reciprocal low-tariff access of EU goods to African economies. The African countries are understandably worried that this could wipe out whatever industries they have, as they would not be able to compete against Europe’s more sophisticated production processes.
These are boring issues for the average person anywhere, but no one in Africa will be unaffected by what eventually is agreed upon. The EU remains by far the most important export market for Africa’s goods, which are mostly raw agricultural commodities.
Zimbabwe as one of Africa’s more “developed” economies should have been at the forefront of stating Africa’s position on the EPAs. There are many solid arguments in favour of Africa fundamentally changing its trade terms with Europe, but there also many reasons to question whether the EPAs proposed by the EU are the best way to do so.
The arguments for and against the EPAs would not be substantially different in Zimbabwe from those in, say, Kenya. That country’s press has done a decent job of laying out all the issues at stake in the negotiations. But because of Zimbabwe’s crippled economic state, the repercussions of the EPA may be even more dire for the country than for many others.
Zimbabwe has joined the list of reluctant African signers. The prohibitively raised tariffs the EU was threatening to charge goods entering its market from January 01, 2008 would so cripple African export competitiveness that there really was never any doubt that most countries would sign. This was especially true of those like Kenya and Zimbabwe that are considered “middle class” enough to not qualify for other concessionary trade term schemes with the EU.
My main point in this connection is how the immediate political mess in Zimbabwe and its effects have so consumed our attentions that we have little time and energy left to focus on other things that will determine our future as much as the current political maneuvering.
It sets out the general fears common to all African countries about the new trade regime that the EPAs are ushering in.
With an economy tottering on the brink of collapse and an unenviable political situation, civil society organisations in Zimbabwe have every reason to worry about the implications of the interim agreement on trade in goods that their country has just signed as part of the economic partnership agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU).
Andrew Mushita, director of the Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT), a non-governmental organisation with interests in trade and technology issues, says that Zimbabwe “cannot compete with the EU on an equal footing because of our economic situation.” He is also worried about the rearrangement of regional configurations as that weakened the position of African countries further.
Other organisations have also added their voices, saying that the EU will emerge as the biggest winner. It will be folly for countries like Zimbabwe with an economy in tatters to hope for any “heavenly manna” to arrive via the EPAs.
“Zimbabwe is just like any other country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) or in East and Southern Africa (ESA) grouping. It is not ready to sign an EPA. Opening up our markets in the present state will only lead to the further exploitation of our raw materials,” said Joy Mabenge, executive director of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development.
Mabenge says Zimbabwe needs more time to resolve its economic problems before it can make commitments like the EPAs. The EU is only interested in African raw materials, which it will return to Africa in the form of processed products at exorbitant prices. Africa still has to strengthen its economies and industrial bases.
“Let’s get our economies to function. Then we will be able to compete on an equal footing with Europe. This issue is being looked at from a simplistic point of view,” Mabenge argues.
Several Zimbabwean analysts say the current economic problems will further hinder Zimbabweans from benefiting from the EPA. Several Zimbabwean companies face demise due to government’s populist policies, which have led to shortages in foreign currency to procure essential industrial components. Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is 7,800 percent.
These problems, analysts say, make it impossible for Zimbabwean companies to compete in the EU market. A sector such as agriculture, which has witnessed a rapid dip in fortunes since 2000 after the introduction of the government’s “land reform” programme, will be forced to compete with subsidised produce from Europe.
Similarly, the beleaguered manufacturing sector will have to take on an influx of European commodities.
The Zimbabwean parliament was recently told at a caucus meeting that the EPAs will take away some of the country’s guaranteed markets.
One organisation has adopted a different position on the EPAs. The Trade and Development Studies Centre based in the Zimbabwean capital Harare does policy research and analysis, focusing particularly on the relationship between trade and development, aid and development, poverty alleviation and welfare.
“These EPAs are not coming from nowhere. They are the result of a gradual build-up through several conventions. There is nothing wrong with the EPA. The problem is its implementation. It can be developmental or have the opposite effect,” said Masiiwa Rusare, the director of the Trade and Development Studies Centre.
“We should keep an eye on what happens. What is needed is to encourage the government to diversify its trade partners and create more options.” But Rusare concedes that regarding market accessibility and agriculture, ensuring that the EPA deal works fairly will be a Herculean task.
“It’s like taking a non-boxer into the ring with (boxing champion) Mike Tyson. The results are obvious,” Masiiwa says.
I thought the article could have gone much deeper to examine those issues from the detailed particular perspective of a Zimbabwe which is on its knees economically. But then again, it would not have been realistic for one article to go into all the intricacies of the EPAs. Other countries have had the benefit of the EPAs being discussed in the media, at conferences and so forth over several months, so that an interested citizen did have access to information on the issues and implications. Zimbabwe has suffered not only from the politics-preoccupation and the struggles of daily survival, but also from having a severely limited press.
This is just another sad indication of how Zimbabwe continues to marginalise itself from significant world affairs. These are the kinds of issues that the president of a country should be engaged with, not basking in how he was mobbed by the media at the recent Africa-Europe Lisbon summit for his notoriety!