An Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) Coordination Meeting was held in Brussels under the auspices of the African Union Commission on October 17 and 18.
The meeting was held to review the state of play of the EPAs between the European Union (EU) and respective African regions and to consider how best the EPA process can be aligned with that of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA).
The EPA process has been ongoing since 2000. In an earlier trade brief, the legal framework and state of play of the EPAs between African regions and the EU as at October 2014 was presented.
At that time, the West Africa, Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and East African Community (EAC) configurations had initialled comprehensive EPAs. Kenya had lost interim EPA access as it could not meet the October1 2014 deadline that had been set for ratification of interim EPAs. Meanwhile, the remaining East African Community (EAC) members proceeded to export to the EU under the ‘Everything but Arms’ (EBA) arrangement.
Cameroon was the only country in Central Africa that had ratified its interim EPA with the EU, while the remaining LDCs (except Congo and Gabon) exported under EBA. Meanwhile, negotiations towards a comprehensive EPA between the Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) region were continuing, while Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Zimbabwe continued to export to the EU under their interim EPA signed in 2009.
On the whole, the status quo of the EPA process remains as it was in October 2014. Most notably, the comprehensive agreements that were agreed—between the EU on the one hand and West Africa, Sadc and EAC on the other – remain at the initialling stage, having not yet moved to signature and ratification.
The legal scrubbing process of the texts, which was initially expected to only take a few months, has taken much longer than first envisaged. The scrubbing process for the EAC text was only completed in September 2015. It was first thought that the process for the Sadc configuration would take two months after initialling, but even a subsequent timeframe of July 2015 was not met.
It is now reported that the process was completed at a Joint EU and Sadc meeting on October 23 2015. It was also agreed in principle that the text will be signed by ministers between May and June 2016.
The slow pace in finalisation of signature and ratification of the EPA texts has started to get quite pertinent. This is particularly because the EU set October 1 2016 as the deadline by which the comprehensive EPA texts must be ratified, failing which countries that had their access preserved after conclusion of negotiations –namely Botswana, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Namibia, Swaziland and Kenya–would again lose preferential access to the EU.
As was noted in the review done in October 2014, the commission would need to notify such a decision to the EU Council and Parliament two months in advance of the deadline. This effectively means the agreements will have to be ratified by 1 August 2016.
For some countries, the requirement to go through national legislative processes for ratification of international agreements such as the EPA, the limited time remaining may pose a significant challenge. For example, in the Sadc EPA, it is not immediately clear whether member States will have sufficient time to ratify the agreement between June and August 2016.
In spite of this challenge, African countries are continuing to prepare for the implementation phase of the EPAs (after signature, ratification and entry into force of the agreements). Apart from reviewing the current status of the EPA process in respective configurations, this was indeed one of the main preoccupations of the EPA Coordination Meeting held last month. n