EU launches talks on new African trade pact

The European Commission announced on Wednesday (2 October) the launch of negotiations with the five-nation Eastern and Southern African community on a new wide-ranging trade agreement.

The Economic Partnership Agreement with Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Zimbabwe has been in place since 2012 but currently only covers goods.

In a press statement, the Commission said the new agreement would hopefully cover ‘trade-related areas, such as services, investment, technical barriers to trade, intellectual property rights as well as trade and sustainable development’.

The ESA EPA, and the EU-Southern African Development Community Economic Partnership Agreement, which came into force in October 2016, are the only regional trade agreements to be fully in force.

Although the five countries in the ESA pact are among the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa, since the initial agreement started to apply in 2012, exports of goods from the five ESA countries to the EU have increased by almost a quarter, reaching nearly €2.8 billion in 2018. That has included a 12% spike in exports from Zimbabwe to the EU, at a time when the country’s exports to the rest of the world have declined.

The slow pace of implementation of the six economic partnership agreements (EPAs) with African regional blocs has been a source of frustration for the Commission in recent years, and increased the pressure on the EU executive to abandon or reappraise its approach to trade deals with Africa.

EU-African trade flows remain frustratingly small. Around 8% of EU exports and less than 7% of EU imports came to and from Africa in 2016.

In his State of the Union address last autumn, outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker mooted the prospect of a continent-to-continent trade pact between the EU and Africa as part of a ‘partnership of equals’, a vision which the incoming executive of Ursula von der Leyen is set to take up.

Although the Commission views the regional EPAs as an important stepping stone towards a continent-to-continent trade deal, complaints by a number of African countries that the proposed agreements were overly focused on them opening up access to their markets to European firms, have effectively stalled the ratification processes.

“The reality is clear that the EPAs were badly negotiated and most of them are not implemented,” Carlos Lopes, the African Union’s High Representative on the successor to the Cotonou agreement, has told EURACTIV.