Africa says no – and means it
by Ignacio Ramonet, January 03, 2008, Le Monde
The unimaginable has happened, to the displeasure of arrogant Europe. Africa, thought to be so poor that it would agree to anything, has said no in rebellious pride. No to the straitjacket of the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), no to the complete liberalisation of trade, no to the latest manifestations of the colonial pact.
It happened in December at the second EU-Africa summit in Lisbon, where the main objective was to force the African countries to sign new trade agreements by 31 December 2007 in accordance with the Cotonou Convention of 2000 winding up the 1975 Lomé accords. Under these, goods from former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific are imported into the European Union more or less duty-free, except for products such as sugar, meat and bananas that are a problem for European producers. The World Trade Organisation has insisted that these preferential arrangements be dismantled or replaced by trade agreements based on reciprocity, claiming that this is the only way African countries can continue to enjoy different treatment. The EU opted for completely free trade in the guise of EPAs. So the 27 were asking African, Caribbean and Pacific countries to allow EU goods and services to enter their markets duty-free (1).
The president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, denounced these strong-arm tactics, refused to sign and stormed out. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki immediately supported his stand and Namibia also decided not to sign (bravely, since an increase in EU customs duties would make it impossible for Namibia to export or continue to produce beef). Even French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who made unfortunate remarks at Dakar in July 2007 (2), supported the countries that were most strongly opposed to these agreements, saying he was in favour of globalisation but not the despoliation of countries that had nothing left (3).
The EPAs aroused wide public concern. Social movements and trade union organisations south of the Sahara mobilised against them. And the revolt against them bore fruit: the summit ended in failure. The president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, was forced to back down and accept the African countries’ call for further discussions. He has promised to resume negotiations in February.
This crucial victory is another sign that things are improving for Africa. In the past few years, the bloodiest conflicts have been settled, leaving only Darfur, Somalia and East Congo. Democratic progress has been consolidated and local economies prosper under the guidance of a new generation of leaders, despite social inequalities.
Africa has another asset in the form of massive Chinese investments. China will overtake the EU as one of the continent’s principal suppliers and could beat the United States to become its most important client by 2010. The time when Europe could impose disastrous structural adjustment programmes is long gone. Africa has had enough.