I will endeavour to be brief. Although it is not on the agenda, I would refer to the committee's earlier discussion with members of the hunger task force. I compliment the Chairman and other committee members on their initiative in bringing in the hunger task force team, led by its chairman, Mr. Joe Walsh. I did not have an opportunity to hear the discussion but I will read the official report. I welcome the engagement between the committee and the hunger task force because this will be a central part of our international aid and development policy in the months and years ahead. I look forward to engaging with the committee on that issue.
On the motion before the committee, I am happy to have the opportunity to discuss the motion which has been proposed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The motion asks Dáil Éireann to approve of three interim partnership agreements between the European Community and its member states, first with Central Africa, Cameroon being the only central African country to initial this agreement, second with Ghana and third with Côte d'Ivoire. I am grateful to the Chairman and other members of the committee for facilitating this motion at such short notice. The reason I seek the approval of the committee and that of Dáil Éireann to sign before Christmas is that the Côte d'lvoire has already signed its agreement at an official ceremony in Abidjan. The other two agreements are planned to be signed, by Cameroon and Ghana respectively, in the near future.
Economic Partnership Agreements, EPAs, are new instruments. They combine both trade and development. Increased trade is central to sustained economic growth in developing countries. Trade, not just aid, is needed if poorer countries are to escape from abject poverty. These three interim trade and development agreements aim to progressively remove barriers to trade between the European Union and Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d'lvoire. They also aim to enhance co-operation in areas related to trade. They seek to provide an open, transparent and predictable framework for goods to circulate freely. The aim is one of increasing the competitiveness of Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d'lvoire.
The three agreements now being discussed involve what is called "mixed competence"; that is to say they deal with issues some of which fall within the exclusive competence of the European Community — trade relations being the primary example — and some of which remain within the competence of the individual member states of the Union. A prime example of the latter is development co-operation with member states.
Where EU agreements with third countries involving mixed competence arise, they are negotiated on behalf of the European Community and the member states by the European Commission with the third countries concerned. They are then signed on behalf of the Community and the member states and finally, before they can formally enter into force, they are ratified by all parties, including by the individual member states, which process we are engaged in today.
These EPAs are a new type of multilateral agreement seeking to combine both trade and wider development issues in a unified framework. Committee members may be aware that EPA negotiations between the EU, represented by the European Commission, and six regional groupings of African, Caribbean and Pacific, ACP, countries began in September 2002. The mandate for their negotiation came from the legally binding Cotonou Agreement. The objective of economic and trade co-operation under this agreement is to foster the smooth and gradual integration of the ACP states into the world economy.
In this context, the EPA negotiations sought to achieve WTO-compatible agreements by the end of 2007 because the WTO had exceptionally allowed the EU and ACP states time to enter into new arrangements. In the event, following protracted and difficult negotiations, only one of the original regional grouping, namely the Caribbean group CARIFORUM, agreed a full EPA with the European Commission. Twenty other ACP countries initialled interim agreements in smaller sub-groups or individually. A positive aspect is that this meant that trade disruption was avoided, which is crucial for those developing and trading countries. Against this background the motion which Dáil Éireann has been asked to approve is:
That Dáil Éireann approve the terms of the three interim Economic Partnership Agreements:
(i) Interim Agreement with a view to an Economic Partnership Agreement between the European Community and its Member States, of the one part, and the Central Africa party, of the other part;
(ii) Agreement establishing a Stepping Stone Economic Partnership Agreement between Ghana, on the one part, and the European Community and its Member States, on the other part; and
(iii) Stepping Stone Economic Partnership Agreement between Cote D'lvoire of the one part and the European Community and its Member States of the other part.
which were laid before Dail Eireann on 10 December 2008.
They are quite voluminous documents and I have copies of the agreements here with me before the committee.
The agreements provide full duty and quota free market access on the EU side for the three countries concerned. For Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d'lvoire this means no EU duties or quotas for any products other than short transition periods for sugar and rice. It also means long-term security for traders and investors with no more waivers, time limits or period renewals. Unlike the system they replace, they meet World Trade Organisation rules and they are safe from legal challenge.
The agreements also provide for a flexible and asymmetric liberalisation schedule over 15 years by Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d'lvoire. Asymmetric in this context means that the ACP countries do not have to liberalise their import regime as much or as fast as the EU.
Cameroon and Ghana will liberalise 80% and Côte d'lvoire 81% of imports from the EU by the end of this period to comply with Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which is the 1996 agreement which led to the formation of the WTO. Certain agricultural as well as non-agricultural processed goods were excluded from liberalisation by the developing countries concerned. The main criterion for these exclusions was the desire to protect certain existing industries or infant industry and maintain fiscal revenues. On liberalisation schedules for Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d'lvoire, I would also highlight that the development co-operation provisions in each of the interim agreements seek to build trade capacity and address adjustments involved for the three countries. They provide for measures to mitigate any negative effects on local industry, livelihood and Government income.
The development co-operation provisions also seek to support the other elements of the agreements which will facilitate trade expansion in Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d'lvoire. These are provisions on customs and trade facilitation, technical barriers to trade, and animal and plant health measures. The agreement with Cameroon contains an additional provision on forestry governance and trade in timber and forest products to address the specific interests of that country.
I turn to the issue of aid for trade at this stage. I recognise that if these African countries are to take full advantage of the trading opportunities afforded by these interim EPAs, then greater and more effective trade-related assistance should be made available to them.
The EU has already pledged to increase collective Commission and member state expenditure in this area to €2 billion per annum by 2010. A large share of this increased expenditure will be devoted to the needs of ACP states. Ireland will continue to play its part in funding aid for trade initiatives in the coming years. Most members would agree that Ireland is very much at the forefront in Europe at promoting aid for trade.
Members of this Committee are carefully watching the EPA process and I value their input to date. The next step is that these interim agreements will act as building blocks to full regional EPAs. This is already the case with CARIFORUM in the Caribbean which signed a full comprehensive EPA in July 2008.
Regional integration will allow efficiency gains through enlarged markets and increased competitiveness, not unlike the experience in the European Union and the European Economic Community over the past 30 years or so. I take this opportunity to assure committee members that I have acted on their concerns and those expressed by non-governmental organisations regarding some aspects of the ongoing negotiations towards full EPAs.
I have corresponded with the new EU Trade Commissioner, Baroness Catherine Ashton, to highlight the need for a flexible approach to be adopted in these negotiations. I had the occasion to meet her in Brussels at last month's General Affairs and External Relations Council, GAERC. I highlighted the need for the flexibility available under current WTO law to be used fully in the ongoing negotiations and the need to ensure an ACP-led, development-friendly approach to any negotiations on trade in services and other trade-related issues. I welcomed the Commissioner's initiative to intervene and meet representatives from each of the ACP countries. I was pleased with the final conclusions of the ministerial meeting in Brussels, which Ireland had an important part in shaping. They stressed the importance of ACP ownership and input in deepening regional integration for development in ACP countries.
The conclusions also highlighted the role of EPAs as instruments for strengthening regional integration and the Council's commitment to a flexible approach to the conclusion of full regional EPAs in agreement with ACP partners and with due regard for their political choices, development priorities and administrative capacities.
I emphasise the importance of adopting these interim economic partnership agreements from the perspective of these three African countries. They provide them with an open and transparent trade framework for their traders and investors, safe from legal challenge.
I thank the committee for its time and I hope it will be able to recommend to Dáil Éireann that the motion proposed be approved. I would be happy to take any questions and engage constructively with the members of the committee.