On the surface and officially, economic partnership agreements (EPAs) bring great advantages to Third World countries like Botswana but the reality is that the opposite can just be true.
As the Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, told a conference at the just-ended Global Expo, some EPAs partners can give a little with one hand and take a lot with the other.
A scheme to create a free trade area between the European Union and The African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), EPAs are legally binding bilateral contracts between these parties. Once signed, EPAs warrant that within a decade, a certain percentage of a country’s market should open to European goods and services.
Masire-Mwamba said that EPAs can essentially amount to prematurely opening up markets of poor countries to European goods. Secondly, EPAs give wealthy European countries access to poor countries, raising the spectre of the former destroying the livelihood of farmers in the latter. Such level of access can also afford rich Europe an opportunity to destroy a poor country’s resources like forests. Conversely, Third World farmers are never going to be able to do likewise in Europe. Thirdly, the liberalisation of taxes could result in asymmetric loss of import tax in which the Third World countries are the losers.
Masire-Mwamba also spoke about the power imbalance that is inherent in the EPA process. According to her, the costs of the negotiations are prohibitive. She cited endless travel as one cost element that negotiators from ACP countries have to contend with. At the negotiations themselves, ACP negotiators have to deal with a whole army of EU counterparts, some of them with vast experience from the World Trade Organisation negotiation process.
“The EU has whole divisions whose sole responsibility is to scrutinise documents,” Masire-Mwamba said.
Later during a panel discussion, the Chief Executive Officer of the Competition Authority, Thula Kaira, buttressed the latter point by recounting a personal experience of a meeting in which he sat in. At that meeting, the EU negotiators overwhelmed their Third World counterparts with superior knowledge of intellectual property rights and competition laws.
The Expo was organised by the Botswana International Trade Centre.