In the next few days, our leaders will decide whether to sign a new trade agreement with Europe.
I write this both as a national of Uganda, and in my capacity as the Executive Director of the South Centre, the only Intergovernmental think tank of the South. It will be a tough judgment call.
The decision they make will weigh heavily on the course of our region’s development for decades to come. For this reason, the proposed agreement needs very careful scrutiny.
We have a long history with Europe in the light of which we must interpret current events.
The proposed agreement by Europe will change the nature of our relationship from cooperation to one based on purely mercantile considerations.
The EU and the ACP “partners” will be bound by the same rules. However, when unequal partners play by the same rules, the outcome is always in favour of the stronger side. With the proposal on the table it isn’t difficult to see who is likely to win.
Analyses on the potential impact of the agreements prepared by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) show that the proposed opening up of 80% of trade of the Eastern Africa Community (EAC) with Europe, will result in loss of tariff revenue of up to $130m per year. Furthermore, as African producers have to compete directly with those of Europe their economies will undergo significant dislocations with regional trade losing ground at the expense of European imports.
Success stories such as the growth of our regional markets for value added produce and manufactured goods could be undermined, threatening our farmers’ livelihoods and factory workers’ jobs.
Europe is using the excuse of the World Trade Organization rules to speed up the conclusion of the negotiations.
Indeed, the use of the December 2007 deadline is the single most important negotiating instrument in Europe’s favour.
However, this deadline is more self-imposed than a legal reality since the Commission has options at its disposal to address the current situation which it is not willing to acknowledge.
Europe is thus keeping on the deadline pressure because it chooses to do so.
We can and we must turn the negotiating dynamics around if we are to reach a negotiated agreement that benefits Africa.
As the deadline approaches, individual EU members will surely assess the implications of maintaining firm the deadline for the future of the strategic relationship with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.
This is especially true for Africa in the context of the upcoming EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon in the first week of December.
Our leaders should capitalise on this political opportunity. On 15 November, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, in an open letter in Le Monde, seriously questioned the proposed agreement among others, due to its potential implications for Africa’s integration.
Equally, other African leaders should join efforts to turn the negotiations with Europe into an opportunity for a better future instead of hastily accepting the proposed agreement as it stands now.
Europe has turned this into a game of high stakes and pressing panic buttons. In such games, he who moves first, loses. It is time for our leaders to hold strong, and not to panic.
The writer is Executive Director of the South Centre,