The first European Union-Africa summit since 2010 was held in Brussels earlier this month. Much of the media focus leading up to the summit was on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s failed bid to instigate a boycott of the meeting by African leaders after his wife was refused a visa to enter Europe. Beyond these headlines, however, the issue of trade relations between the two parties continues to be one of pressing importance. The EU has been negotiating Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries since 2002. The final declaration of the Brussels summit this year included the commitment of both the EU and Africa to explore “all the possibilities to reach a satisfactory conclusion of development-oriented and WTO-compatible EPAs.” But this commitment masks how the EPA negotiations have become one of the most divisive issues between the two continents during the past decade.
Things were very different in the mid-1970s when Europe signed the first Lome Convention with the ACP group of states. Inspired by calls for a new trade relationship between developed and developing countries—what the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 termed the New International Economic Order—ACP states secured a number of concessions from Europe, especially nonreciprocal trade preferences and a number of commodity protocols that guaranteed a fixed price for a set quota of exports. However, neoliberal thinking on development became increasingly dominant during the 1980s. Then in 1995 the World Trade Organization (WTO) came into being, resulting in a strengthening of multilateral rules that made the continuation of Lome-style trade preferences difficult to justify.
As a result, the Lome Convention was replaced in 2000 by the Cotonou Agreement, which set out the framework for a complete overhaul of Europe’s trade relations with the ACP states. The EU launched EPA negotiations in September 2002 and eventually conducted talks with seven sub-regions within the wider ACP group. The initial deadline for their conclusion was the end of 2007, when the WTO waiver for the extension of nonreciprocal trade preferences expired. Progress, however, was slow, and apart from the Caribbean, with which the EU signed an EPA in 2008, all that was achieved was a series of interim agreements covering the liberalization of trade in goods.