The business community in the region is now ready to fully team up with the East African Community.
The commitment comes after partner states have taken a common position to sign the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with the European Union as a bloc.
EPAs are arrangements between EU and ACP that optimally emphasise lifting of barriers on their markets in respect to each other.
And, the African Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP) including Rwanda are supposed to sign EPAs with the EU before January next year.
The decision to negotiate as a bloc was reached during a recent meeting of permanent secretaries and technocrats for trade and regional co-operation in Arusha.
Arun Devani, the chairman East African Business Council, a voice of the private sector in East Africa said in a statement: “We are today emphasising that EABC is ready to collaborate with the EAC.”
The EABC Secretariat has been tasked to immediately send out a notification to the EAC Private Sector develop a concrete position representing the common interest for the Private Sector to the Partner States.
The EABC’s worries about the bickering among partner states were exacerbated when tension developed between Tanzania and Uganda on the one hand, and Kenya on the other.
The three countries were not sure under which bloc to enter into an EPA with the EU.
The recent report in the East African says perception among government officials in Uganda and Tanzania that Kenya was leaning towards Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) group.
ESA is the configuration of Comesa member states that has been negotiating an EPA with the EU as a single bloc - and to which Tanzania does not belong.
But after the Permanent Secretaries meeting, it was agreed that Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda will present a unified position.
To Devani, a common stand will help to inform and influence governments and the citizens in member states.
According to regional papers, permanent secretaries decided: First, that the EAC EPA configuration be made open to other countries that are willing and able to comply with the provisions of the East Africa Customs Union.
Second, that the EAC-EPA take into account the milestones reached under either ESA and/or SADC EPA in coming up with the new EPA for the East African Customs Unions.
Third, the EAC secretariat immediately opens negotiations with the ESA EPA and SADC EPA configurations to agree on areas of joint negotiations.
Fourth, that the European Commission be requested to provide a formal commitment by October this year that there will be no disruptions to trade after December 31.
In a sense, this is first time countries of the region are waking up to the problem of overlapping memberships of regional economic groups.
Tanzania pulled out of Comesa in 2000 and joined SADC.Thus, while the rest of the members of the East African Customs Union are members of Comesa, Tanzania is the only country with a Free Trade Area access to SADC.
Compounding the problem is the fact that SADC and Comesa have been negotiating with Europe separately.
The ESA negotiating group comprises 16 of Comesa’s 19 member countries - the exceptions being Angola, Egypt and Swaziland.
On the other hand, the SADC negotiating group includes 7 of that bloc’s 13 member countries, namely Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia.
Meanwhile a recent survey warmed that EPAs could undermine development in East Africa should the countries honour economic agreements with the European Union in their present draft form.
“For Rwanda, EPAs will mean further entrenchment in a dependence upon agricultural commodities destined for EU markets, and its potential to industrialise will be undermined,” The New Times quotes the Southern and Eastern African Trade, Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI) as saying in its report launched last week in Kampala.
SEATINI was founded in 1996 after realising that Africa in particular and the third world countries in general were marginalised in the World Trade Organisation and other trade negotiations. T
he report recommends that African countries concentrate on expanding and enhancing regional markets through economic integration and also re-negotiate with the EU on improved EPAs.
EPA negotiations launched in September 2002 will be concluded at the end of December this year.
The report says that the present EPAs between EU and Africa demand the latter to gradually lift barriers on their markets until they open fully by 2010.
But under the same agreements the African countries are discouraged to add value to their exports to the EU member states.
In addition, the European countries will maintain subsidies to theirs indigenous farmers implying that even consumer products from EU countries will be allowed on the African market, and at cheap prices, a condition that could destabilise production in Africa.