E U CAUGHT IN ITS OWN TRAP
By Aboudi Ottou, US Africa News. Updated 2015-12-19
Pressed to conclude an Economic Partnership Agreement with Cameroon, Brussels submitted negotiations on rules of origin that are delaying the implementation of the agreement.
Since August 4, 2014, the European Union (EU) has required that its goods begin entering the Cameroonian market without paying customs duties. This date marked the implementation of the bilateral Economic Partnership Agreement (BEPA) with Cameroon, which provides for an exemption from customs duties on 80% of Cameroon’s imports from the EU. But going forward, the EU is facing a major challenge: the absence of rules of origin which would be applicable to European goods entering Cameroon. Indeed, without rules of origin, no dismantling of duties is possible. For it is these rules that would enable Cameroonian customs to determine whether a product is of European origin and could thus enter without being subject to tariffs. According to Article 13 paragraph 1 of BEPA, the rules of origin that should be applied are those in force from January 1, 2008.
Except that according to experts, “as of January 1, 2008, two distinct categories of original rules were applicable in Cameroon. The said rules are specific to goods originating in CEMAC (Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa) and ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States). This is applicable to instruments of community legislation between Member States of the above international organizations, which cannot, under any circumstances, be applicable to goods from the EU». In its paragraph 2, the same article states that nevertheless “a common system governing the reciprocal rules of origin will be amended to this Agreement by the EPA Committee [the EU-Cameroon joint body responsible for the administration of the agreement], and will be in force from the provisional accord” of this application. With this provision, Cameroon proposed in May this year a draft protocol to the EU related to defining the notion of originating products and methods of administrative cooperation.
Based on the conclusions of the first session of the EPA committee held on May 11 and 12 in Brussels, instead of responding to this protocol, “the EU offer[ed] to apply Regulation 1528/2007/EC [a set of 27 items adopted by the EU Council in December 20, 2007] to fill the current legal vacuum on the issue on its imports to Cameroon until the parties adopt a common position on said protocol.” The committee responsible for monitoring the implementation of the EPA, which held its 11th session on November 19 in Yaoundé, suggested rejecting the EU proposal. The arguments made by the at Minister of Economy, Planning and the Interior (Minepat) were as follows: «Regulation 1528/2007/EC proposed by the EU presents important limitations--its unilateral character, the absence of provisions relating to the determination of the European origin of the goods, and its obsolete nature within the EU (for the record, the text in force on this matter is Regulation 1063/2010). Thus, it does not respect the spirit of the interim agreement, and therefore cannot be applicable in the state.” For this committee, chaired by Gilbert Didier Edoa, the Secretary General of Minepat, the protocol submitted by the Cameroonian party is “a most complete document that takes into account the interests of all parties and already envisages the outcome of sub regional negotiations in the this matter.”
It is at this level that the problem lies. The EU in fact is showing little interest in concluding a complete and balanced regional agreement. It prefers rather that the other countries of Central Africa (CA) adhere to its bilateral agreement with Cameroon. The bilateral EPA with Cameroon is indeed far more favorable for the EU than the Central African negotiations.
“The Economic Partnership Agreement with Cameroon opens a new era in relations between the EU and Central Africa... I very strongly encourage other countries in the region to join the Cameroon in the Central Africa-EU EPA to build a partnership adapted to the development objectives of Central Africa,” Karel De Gucht, the Trade Commissioner of the European Union, responded in July 2014 to Cameroon’s ratification of the bilateral EPA with the EU. During the joint meeting (European Union - Central Africa) of the contact group held on June 19, 2015 in Brussels, the EU reiterated this. According to the report which was made at the 35th session of the Regional Coordinating Committee of negotiations (NCRC) of the Economic Partnership Agreement between the CA and the EU organized from June 29 to July 3 at Douala, "the European side wants the negotiations to continue on the basis of the interim agreement of Cameroon."
This would explain the EU’s eagerness to dismantle trade barriers on its exports to Cameroon, as this dismantling would jeopardize regional integration in Central Africa. It would, for example, destroy the CEMAC customs union by generating a second common external tariff (Tec Cameroon-EU alongside already existing Tec CEMAC). In the absence of a regional agreement, the other countries of Central Africa would then have no choice but to join the Cameroon -EU bilateral EPAs in order to save regional integration.
In the absence of rules of origin applicable to European goods entering the country, Cameroon therefore holds a lever to delay the Machiavellian plan of the European Union. But in order to permanently defeat the project, it must immediately conclude a regional agreement. The battle is far from won. Faced with the objective of Central Africa concluding a regional agreement with Brussels, at least on the technical level, by the end of 2015, the head of the European Union’s delegation in Cameroon was quick to state in an interview given late April on integration that "this date does not really seem realistic; first, because the mandate of the Central African negotiators did not allow them to quickly conclude the negotiations; and second because of the delay in negotiating work since 2008, it is not technically possible to foresee a conclusion before the end of the year." In a letter dated November 10, the EU asked the CA to submit its draft agreement in order to allow its experts to begin considerations. Is this a mere strategy, or does it signal a real will to speed up negotiations?