Tanzania has said that its decision on whether to sign a trade deal with the European Union will be known after Monday’s EAC Council of Ministers meeting in Arusha, as Burundi declared it will not sign since it still faces sanctions from the EU.
“The government of Burundi will not sign the EPAs because the EU stopped the partnership with Burundi,” said Minister of EAC Affairs Leontine Nzeyimana.
Kenya and Rwanda caught their East Africa Community partners by surprise on Thursday when they signed the Economic Partnership Agreements in Brussels, the seat of the EU, just before the regional ministerial conference was to take a common position on the matter.
Uganda has since said it will sign the agreements at the ministerial council which will prepare the position to be taken by presidents of the five partner states during a Summit starting September 9. The agreement can only be binding when ratified by all EAC members.
On Friday, Tanzania’s Minister for Industry, Trade and Investment Charles Mwijage, said he was not aware of any change in the country’s position.
He said he was travelling and he will comment upon return to Dar es salaam on Monday.
Mr Mwijage had told The EastAfrican in July that Dar es Salaam would not sign the EPAs in its current form because it would frustrate Tanzania’s budget, which relies heavily on import duty, and hurt the country’s nascent industries.
Earlier, a Burundi government official had said the country was to make its position known during the ministerial council after overtures by Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto during a visit to President Pierre Nkurunziza in July.
Tanzania led the rejection of the agreement two months ago, saying its importance had been diluted by the exit of Britain from the European Union in June. Uganda soon followed with President Yoweri Museveni saying all concerns needed to be brought on board and addressed. The agreement had been scheduled to be signed on July 18 during the Unctad meeting in Nairobi.
Hours before Kenya and Rwanda signed the agreement, Uganda said it would sign too.
“We have made up our mind. The EU market is very important to us. It is actually our largest export market. We are going ahead to sign the EPAs,” Uganda Trade Minister Amelia Kyambadde said on the sidelines of the annual Co-operatives Sector Review Conference. It is understood the three countries agreed to sign when their top officials met during the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad) in late August in Nairobi.
The deal is expected to ensure continued duty-free and quota-free access to the EU for all EAC exports while in reciprocation offering partial and gradual opening of the EAC market to EU imports.
The EU ambassador to Rwanda, Michael Ryan, said the action by Kenya and Rwanda was partial until all the five states were on board.
“Under the difficult political circumstances around the signing, this is beginning to close up on the final phase of the signing and ratification of the EPAs. We see significant momentum building up, so we just have to wait and see,” Mr Ryan told The EastAfrican.
However, the signing persuaded the EU international trade committee to propose that the EU parliament extend by four months the deadline to change the status of Kenya’s access to the EU market.
The deadline had been set for September 30, meaning that from next month, Kenyan imports would have been subject to duties, making them less competitive.
“We convinced the EU parliament not to lock us out of preferential terms and our request was agreed to. We will now take the document to the Kenyan parliament for ratification so as to make it legal,” Dr Chris Kiptoo, Kenya’s principal sectary at the Industrialisation ministry told The EastAfrican from Brussels.
Kenya hopes the market access extension will be in force until the EPAs is ratified by all parties.
Kenya, as a developing country, cannot access the market under the Everything But Arms provisions which is open for its EAC partners who are categorised as least developing countries.
Rwanda is understood to have signed with the foresight that in a decade or so it, Tanzania and Uganda will have graduated to a developing country according to World Bank projections.
The EU accounts for 31 per cent of Kenya’s export market, especially for cut flowers, tea, fresh vegetables and coffee. Kenya’s total annual exports to the EU amount to about $2.47 billion. Tanzania’s export to the EU was $1.18 billion while Uganda’s was at $547 million. Rwanda’s was at $212.1 million.
“Kenya has the urgency to sign. It is through the deal that they are able to safeguard their market access to EU under duty free access,” said Emmanuel Hategeka, Rwanda’s permanent secretary for Trade and Industry.
On the possibility of the EPAs being rendered useless for the bloc if one country rejects the deal, Mr Hategeka said all countries should be allowed enough time to assess before they commit to signing.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has advised a cautionary approach to the EPAs which have been labelled as unfair across Africa.
“If the EPAs is not signed as a bloc, then one would hope that the EU will extend its existing preferential market access rather than start applying higher tariffs on African exports,” said Andrew Mold, the East African head of United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
He said the difficulty in signing EPAs also arose from Brexit which meant the deals no longer included the UK, a major trading partner for African countries.
Additional reporting by Allan Olingo, Moses Havyarima and Christopher Kidanka.