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Opinion: Post-Cotonou agreement trade provisions are shockingly asymmetrical

The European Union and the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries concluded negotiations to update the framework agreement that shapes their political and economic relationships on Thursday (15 April 2021).

This post-Cotonou agreement is all about political cooperation on anything ranging from human rights to migration to ‘peace and security’. On these I am not qualified to judge.

Ironies in the outcome

But given that this is a trade policy publication, here are yours truly two cents on the trade policy aspect of the agreement. This aspect is woven into various chapters, notably the ‘sustainable development’ chapter. The EU ACP framework arrangement is not supposed to have much in terms of ‘hard’ market access or trade and investment commitments as in standard bilateral trade agreements – or is it?

The irony of the whole ACP process leading to the new Cotonou framework is that its largest subgroup, the African Union members – wanted the pact to include some meaningful trade and investment provisions that would help them diversify away from commodities export dependence and produce more locally.

They also wanted more unified approach from the EU to the whole of Africa on trade, and see an end to what many perceive as a trade divide-and-conquer tactics deployed by the EU’s sub-regional Economic Partnership Agreements.

What did they get in the end? A deal that contains some meaningful and quite sensitive trade provisions – but mainly the ones the Europeans prefer. And little that in fact helps notably Africa get its newly minted common trade area AfCFTA off the ground.

Prevalence of Western sustainability views… and business interests

The deal oozes of the combination of White People-populated European NGO ‘development’ and ‘environmental’ condescension – ‘fair trade’ feel good language and the like – and hard-nosed long-established corporate interests of European investors and traders in the area. Frankly the combination of all this together in a legal text is disagreeable to read.

Take article 41 on “Mobilisation of sustainable and responsible investment” – the language itself takes from the moralising script we know that is so pervasive in Brussels.

But then take that article’s first paragraph and judge for yourself: “The Parties undertake to mobilise sustainable and responsible investment with a view to enhancing inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development. To that end, they shall establish a conducive investment climate, which attracts domestic and foreign investment, including investment from their diaspora, and maintains the right to regulate through transparent, predictable and efficient regulatory, administrative and policy frameworks.” The first sentence: feel-good stuff. Next sentence: a mixture of dry World Bank and IMF Report language mixed up with language that suits the interests of the Western leading commodities investors in the region.

Now to article 42 on “Investment facilitation and protection”. Paragraph 3 says: “The Parties, in line with their respective strategies, agree on the importance of providing legal certainty and adequate protection to established investments the treatment of which shall be non-discriminatory in nature and shall include effective dispute prevention and resolution mechanisms. In that regard, they reaffirm the importance of concluding international investment agreements that fully preserve their sovereign right to regulate investment for legitimate public policy purposes.”

Ok, is signing investment protection agreements with Africa just the priority right now when the system of investment protection agreements in unravelling?

And now to the Economic Partnership Agreements, the bilateral or sub-region to sub-region agreements signed, in force, under negotiation or renegotiation with countries from the Pacific, the Cariforum and in Africa.

Article 50, paragraph 4: “Bearing in mind the need for building on their existing preferential trade arrangements and Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) as instruments of their trade cooperation, recognise that cooperation shall primarily be strengthened to support concrete implementation of those existing instruments.”

Oh and whereas the agreement mentions on specific sector – only generic ones such as ‘services’ – there is one European business sector that gets its little perk, hidden away in language on maritime security and cooperation in Article 26, paragraph 3: maritime services.

“The Parties acknowledge the importance of cost-effective and efficient maritime transport services as the main mode of transport facilitating trade. They shall cooperate in the maritime transport sector to promote the efforts of Pacific OACPS Members in developing competitive ports and port services, including navigation infrastructure, with a view to improving the movement of goods and people,” the relevant provision says.

There is of course language that aims at helping the ACP countries diversify their economies, build their skill-set, develop their digital economies and even some good intentions on taking into account the different levels of development of the EPA signatories – a key demand of African EPA members.

Also, there is little in that agreement that does not make sense in itself. Its focus on the maritime world is particularly interesting in the current geopolitical context and global environmental challenges.

But the asymmetry in terms of whose interests and whose discourse has prevailed in this negotiation is glaring. We all know the background of the Cotonou framework is a legacy from the colonial era. But it’s high time we all move into the 21st century.

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