Deadline for signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the East African Community (EAC) and the European Union lapsed, yesterday, with the former still undecided.
The deadline, which was initially October last year, had been extended to February 2 (yesterday) to give member countries more time to review the document and come up with a common position as a bloc.
By the lapse of the previous deadline, only Rwanda and Kenya had signed the agreement. However, the agreement is expected to be effective if all EAC partner states accede to it.
Across the region, opinions on whether to sign it or not have been sharply split with some with the view that EPAs are not ideal for the region as it will open up the region to more European exports which could promote unfair competition and kill regional industries.
Those for the agreement argue that the deal provides for EAC exports access to European markets duty-free and quota-free, while the European Union access to EAC market provides for a gradual liberalisation of tariffs.
During the previous EAC heads of state summit held in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, the leaders requested for additional time for clarification on some of the contentious issues raised by partner states before considering the signing of the agreement as a bloc.
Rwanda-Kenya statement of intent
Despite EAC’s delay to sign the agreement, representatives of the bloc say they are encouraged by the determination shown by Rwanda and Kenya to press ahead with the EPA.
Michael Ryan, the head of EU Delegation to Rwanda, told The New Times that the signature of the two countries was a demonstration of positive intent by a section of the region to move toward implementation of this far-reaching trade agreement.
He said they were optimistic that the matter would receive attention during the oncoming Heads of State Summit.
“But this is an agreement with all member countries of the EAC, and we understand the need for all EAC countries to work toward a consensus, the same consensus they showed when the EPA was initiated. We hope that the matter will receive the full attention of Heads of State at the forthcoming EAC Summit,” he said.
Amb. Ryan defended the agreement, saying that even when regional countries achieve a middle income status and no longer qualify for free access to the EU market, the EPA will ensure full free market access.
“One of the more appealing aspects of the EPA, is that as countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi progress towards middle income status, and no longer qualify for full free access to EU markets, the EPA will ensure continued full free market access. The EPA is about furthering East African economic integration, not disrupting it,” he said.
Considering that all countries in the region, other than Kenya, are part of least developed countries, access to the EU market is guaranteed even without the agreement, through the Everything But Arms regime.
Kenya’s access to the market was last year extended without the EPA through the market access regulation protocol.
But Amb. Ryan said access of EAC bloc to the EU market is not an immediate concern as Kenya was in the meantime secured under the Market Access Regulation (MAR).
“MAR is not and cannot be seen as a long-term solution, it offers Kenya time to work with its partners (in EAC to seakl EPA). As a matter of fact, the EAC will have enough time to discuss internally and make a decision as a bloc to sign the agreed EPA,” the envoy said.
As to whether failure to sign the agreement would attract repercussions for the EAC such as discontinued aid or donor support, Ryan allayed fears that EAC member states could see aid cuts.
“There is no repercussion for non-signature. EU assistance to EAC countries, as elsewhere in the world, is based on a set of factors, including population and level of economic development,” he said.
“The suggestion that Tanzania, for example, might see its aid cut because of its reluctance at this moment to sign the EPA is completely incorrect. EU partnerships are founded on the positive power of incentives, rather than penalties,” he said.
Commenting on the issue, the Minister for Trade, Industry and East African Community Affairs, Francois Kanimba, said the issue would feature at the next EAC Heads of State summit.
He said that they are awaiting direction from the summit which is slated to take place at the end of February.