In recent weeks, a common topic in discussion of East African Community’s future has been a trade deal between the bloc and the European Union. The Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which has been under negotiation since 2007, seeks to create a deal giving EAC products a duty- and quota-free access to the EU market.
However, there has been some hesitance among several East African countries, who fear that the trade deal could adversely affect the bloc’s goals of industrialisation. The New Times’ Collins Mwai caught up with two European Union Members of Parliament, Marie Arena and Julie Ward, who are opposed to the trade deal, saying, in its current form, it is not good for East African countries and their emerging industries. Excerpts;-
East African Heads of States recently asked for an additional three months to consider the EU-EAC trade deal before agreeing on a unanimous decision on the way forward. What is your take on the Economic Partnership Agreement?
We think this kind of agreement is unfair for the region. Europe has pushed a hard negotiation and Europe has taken Kenya as a leader as they are the only ones with key interests in the agreement. Kenya is not a least developed country to be able to access the European Market, which is not the case for Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi, who have access to the EU market.
If the bloc signs the agreement, you have no more preferences across certain products entering your market with unfair competition. European competitively is higher and could cause you to lose your tax across certain products as well as lose the infant industries competing with European imports.
Beyond opposing the agreement and calling for its review, are you taking any concrete steps?
We have to convince the European parliament that going ahead with this agreement is not good for Africa as we are trying to have a new partnership with Africa. Real partnership, not one that always works in our favour. We, however, need the support of countries from the region (EAC).
We need the countries to call for the increased protection beyond what is provided for in the agreement to ensure the competitiveness of their products.
Some countries in the region are aiming at attaining middle income status in the coming years, which is going to see them benefit from such a trade deal due to increased production capacities and less trade deficits. You still think the deal is bad in such cases?
Rwanda says it will not be among the least developed countries by 2020, we are in full support of that, but we think they should wait till they are not in the Least developed countries category before entering such an agreement. When you are a medium level country, then you can be in a better position to negotiate such kind of an agreement.
For Rwanda and other countries in the region, what is more important at the moment is the regional markets of East Africa. You have to form close ties to trade across the region, it is why we wanted to guarantee Kenya access to the European market at the same time giving attention to intra-region, which bears more potential for African countries.
Now Kenya will have access to the European market without mobilising other EAC countries to be a part of the deal.
Already, the agreements has clauses to protect some industries in East Africa, what more ought to be incorporated?
There are a lot of things that should be incorporated into the agreement for the sake of East African countries. One of them is more protection of infant industries. Although there is a mechanism at the moment, it is very difficult to activate. We have to protect the infant industries for the long term development of the industries.
We also need a chapter and clauses on sustainable development for people and the environment. As much as we want to do business, we want sustainability, it is important to have a chapter binding for social development and environment. We are well aware that it is not easy to have this coming from Africa but it is important to protect people from certain kinds of practices in businesses.
The European parliament endorsed an alternative trade mandate in January 2014, which is not binding and legislative. It is largely about sustainability, people and the environment. It is time that we had such clauses added into the trade agreement. It is a bit odd that though sustainability is part of the interest of Europe, it was not incorporated in this agreement.
As representatives of the European people, why are you very much opposed to the deal? You do not want to trade with Africa?
It is not that we do not want to trade with the East African region, it is that we do want to make it mutually beneficial and respect East Africa’s interests too as much as it does European interests.
We have a lot of information from bodies like the International Trade Centre showing that it will damage the local (EAC) industry.
In an ideal situation, how can East Africa countries improve their terms of negotiation, especially with the EU?
The first thing that has to be conducted is an impact assessment study before agreeing to the agreement and signing it. This is important, if we want to have a fair agreement. It is not Africa against Europe or vice versa, it is about having mutual benefits.
We cannot say that we want people to be well but go ahead to push through with agreements that will make them poor. The impact assessment should reflect on how the deals and agreements influence social, political and development aspects of lives.
As much as you talk about ‘fair agreement and deals’ at the end of the day, each region is looking out for itself. Its business.
These are some of the factors that end up causing people to migrate. At the moment, migration is a very big issue in Europe. The best way is to be coherent in our political thoughts. We have to look out for Africa as we insist on doing business with them.
But here, on the one hand, we are talking about factors that cause people to migrate from Africa while, on the other hand, we keep supporting policies that cause them to migrate out of poverty. Migration and trade are closely related.
We have the Cotonou Agreement, which inform Africa-Europe cooperation in the areas of development governance and trade. At the moment, we are only doing trade, we should have the others too implemented, that is development and governance.
You have severally mentioned the case of Kenya being used to influence the rest of the region. Are you in support of a scenario where countries go into agreements separately as opposed to a bloc?
It is difficult because if you do country based, you are not supporting the regional aspect which is very important. In your interest, it is better to work as a bloc as opposed to individual countries. We have to have politics which aim at improving the regional development for Africa.
If this deal is only in the interest of one country, it is not sustainable or impactful.
There are fears that if the agreement goes through, we could see less long-term foreign direct investments in Africa since European products can access the market without necessarily bringing plants into the region. Do you share similar concerns?
There has to be long term investment in Africa because that is a way to enable development and sustainability. We have to promote investments to promote sectors like agriculture to make the sector more productive. We have to convince investors to come to Africa and work with the local industries not only for productivity but also for food security and food sovereignty. This can be through ‘smart’ agriculture where technology can be incorporated to make the sectors more productive.