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10.12.2007 General News

EU agrees free trade access for 15 poor nations

By Amos Anyimad

EU foreign ministers on Monday adopted rules allowing practically free access to the European market for products from 15 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) nations who have agreed an interim trade deal with the bloc.

A further 27 ACP nations, including 14 in the Caribbean, risk having higher customs tariffs if they fail to initial new trade deals by the end of the year.

Monday's decision affects seven African nations -- Botswana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mauritius, eychelles, Swaziland and Zimbabwe -- plus Fiji and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific.

All their export products, except rice and sugar, will be allowed into the EU without duty charges or quota restrictions. In exchange they will progressively open their markets to European goods -- to between 80 percent and 97 percent depending on the country involved -- over the next 25 years.

Six other African nations are also included in the rules adopted Monday -- Burundi, Lesotho, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda -- will retain their preferential market access as less developed nations, even if they don't initial a new deal.

For the last five years the European Commission has been negotiating with 78 ACP nations Economic Partnership Agreements to replace, by the end of this year, the existing preferential trading regime between Europe and its former colonies.

The World Trade Organisation deemed the current regime incompatible with international rules and in effect ordered them to be replaced by 2008.

Seeing that it would be impossible to reach a full agreement in time, the Commission has concluded interim agreements in recent weeks, dealing solely with goods and leaving the services aspect of the deal to be hammered out next year.

But even the lesser agreement has proved elusive in some cases.

South Africa, which already has a bilateral agreement with the EU, and therefore has nothing to lose, is among the hold outs.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said that the Pacific nations yet to initial a deal did practically no trade with the European Union and therefore would not lose out.

In Africa, Ghana, Cameroon and Gabon were set to sign a deal soon, he said.

But Namibia, along with South Africa, is proving a tougher problem, he told reporters.

Some nations "have shown no interest in the negotiations because they seem to believe they do not need the EU's privileges," he said.

Namibia has still refused to sign up, as has Congo, said Mandelson.

So has Nigeria, but with its large oil reserves, it is deemed to be less in danger economically if it fails to agree.

As for the Caribbean nations, they would like a complete accord, including good, services and investment rules, said Mandelson.

"There are some remaining issues to be negotiated in that context but I am confident that the Caribbean will initial at least an interim agreement and possibly even a full agreement if we can resolve those remaining issues in the coming days," he said.

As other countries conclude deals with the EU their names will be added to the list adopted Monday, said Mandelson's spokesman Peter Power.

Mandelson rejected criticism that the EU was applying too much pressure on some of the poorest countries on the planet to initial deals.

It was "insulting" to say that the African countries "were forced to do something that they were not willing to do," he said