[Ann Winterton in the Chair] — Economic Partnership Agreements

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:23 pm on 8th June 2006.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith 3:23 pm, 8th June 2006

This is indeed an important debate on an important subject, particularly for developing countries. It is fair to say that if a network of economic partnership agreements is eventually established, it will be probably be more significant for relations between the EU and ACP countries than the original Lomé convention, which was drawn up some decades ago.

I agree with everything that has been said about the potential gain for developing countries, including the poorest, from an expansion of trade. There is no doubt that developing countries stand to make a particular gain from an expansion of trade, and such expansion will be important if we are to have any hope of reaching the millennium development goals. Free trade can be an immense opportunity for developing countries, but as has been mentioned, free trade also has to be fair trade, and the relationship must have beneficial, not negative, consequences for developing countries.

In some of the time available this afternoon, I want to put on record issues that, as I am sure that the Minister and the various Front-Bench spokesmen will be aware, have been raised by developing countries and non-governmental organisations concerned with these matters. I hope to get a response in those areas, and some expansion as to Government policy in them.

Let us not forget what is being asking for. Ultimately, we are asking producers in ACP countries to put themselves in direct competition with European competitors, who in many cases will have had decades of subsidies, support and protections from their Governments, in which they have been able to build up strong, competitive industries. We want ACP countries to be able to compete on fair terms with those producers, and it is important that the transition to that new trading relationship benefits the ACP countries. We are all aware of the danger that, if we simply open up markets in developing countries, products from Europe will flood those markets, and even existing industries and producers in ACP countries will lose out; it will be a question not of benefit to those developing countries, but of actually setting the relationship back.

The issues about which many developing countries and NGOs are concerned have been made well known to Members of the House, so I shall not set them out in great detail, but will describe them in headline terms. There is concern in some quarters that even the loss of tariff income could be important for some ACP countries, because it would have an effect on their Governments' expenditure on social provision, particularly health and education. There is a concern that once ACP countries have entered into economic partnership agreements, their ability to change their own trade and development strategies in future to take account of changing circumstances will be limited.

Above all, I have already referred to the concern that ACP countries could find themselves unable to protect their domestic producers and infant industries from EU imports—not just imports without any EU subsidy or assistance, but imports that are actually subsidised in various ways, whether indirectly or directly, by EU countries. The consequences for infant industries and domestic producers in ACP countries could be severe.

Concerns have been expressed about what can be described as the premature lowering of import tariffs in Ghana and Senegal on products such as tomato paste, chicken parts and meat. It is suggested that there was a subsequent flood of cheap European products undercutting locally produced goods, causing factories that added value to local produce to close, and causing hardship in poor rural communities where livelihoods depended on the sale of surplus food.

Concern has already been raised about the Singapore issues. I certainly welcome the Government's clear statement that they will not take an approach that insists on the Singapore issues as part of negotiations, but I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that it is one thing to make that statement at European Council meetings, and another for it to be immediately put into effect. When a series of detailed negotiations is taking place, the Singapore issues can be pressed much more strongly than the Government would wish, through the back door.

Concerns about the capacity and ability of some trade negotiators, including regional secretariats and ACP trade negotiators, to engage in equal negotiations with the EU have already been mentioned. I know that the Government and the EU have given some support to try to level the playing field for those negotiations, but more needs to be done. It would be interesting to hear today what steps the Minister thinks can be taken to secure a level playing field in the negotiations not only for the EPAs but for the World Trade Organisation, and to hear how some levelling of the playing field can be achieved by providing resources to the negotiators from the ACP fund.

It has already been suggested from across the Floor that one of the issues is who leads for the EU in negotiations. The suggestion has certainly been made by some in the development lobby that the development wing in the EU institutions—to put it in those terms—does not have the same input as those concerned with trade policy. Those are important concerns, which mean a substantial review is required of the approach taken to the EPA to date. That is why I welcome what the Minister has said regarding the review of the EPA negotiation process and it would be interesting to hear—either today or later—about the terms that the Government think the review must comprehend to ensure that it is not just a "light" review, as the European Commission originally described it. We want to know a bit more about how extensive that review process can be.

It is a difficulty in all negotiations about the EU's relationships with ACP countries and the developing world more generally that there is a tendency for the Government or others in the EU to take a position about the direction in which they want to go, only for it to change somewhat when it comes to detailed negotiations. We then have to wait for an intervention by the Secretary of State or someone else to get the negotiations back on course. I am interested to hear how the Minister envisages the development of the review process. Will he reassure us that as far as possible, the Government, along with our European partners, will keep a grip on the review process?

I shall make my final point briefly because some of my original points have already been made. I would like to know how we can meet the objective of the Cotonou process to ensure that the development of the new relationship between the EU and the ACP countries involves not just Governments and institutions, but civil society and parliamentarians at all levels—particularly those in the developing countries, but those in the EU as well. That is an area where some progress still has to be made.

Britain is perhaps an exception as far as the involvement of civil society in debates on this issue are concerned. Like Mr. Browne and most other hon. Members, I know that the public's interest in these issues is deep, wide ranging and considerable, and it forms one of the largest single elements of the correspondence and contact I have with constituents. That is not the case in all EU countries, and an important task must therefore be undertaken to ensure that these discussions and negotiations involve wider civil society.

I shall make one further point, if I may, given that there is a bit of time available, about the process that we take part in during such debates, and the involvement of wider civil society in the terms to which I referred. I am not sure at whom my comments should be directed—the Government or even the Chairmen's Panel—but I note that our position in discussing this Select Committee report is not untypical. The report began in the Select Committee in November 2004 and reached the end of the Committee process in March 2005. The Government responded quickly in June 2005, but for all sorts of reasons, we have finally got round to debating it in the House in June 2006.

As it happens, that may have caused a problem—not a substantial one, because, fortuitously, there is already a debate on the issues. I have raised concerns elsewhere about the way in which we ought properly to discuss such matters. I will not press the point further, but if we are talking about involving parliamentarians in the wider process, as well as Government, it may well be salutary for us, as parliamentarians, to consider that.