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EU offers full market access to former colonies

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EU offers full market access to former colonies

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(BRUSSELS) - The EU offered on Wednesday to scrap most tariffs and quotas on exports from African, Caribbean and Pacific nations to boost talks on new trade pacts, but the proposition quickly met with scorn.

The European Commission and the 78-nation ACP are struggling to make progress to conclude new trade agreements by the end of the year, when a current preferential market access accord is due to expire.

Under the European Union's new offer, all quotas and tariffs on ACP goods would be lifted immediately once a deal was signed, with the exception of rice and sugar.

Ninety-seven percent of EU imports from ACP nations are already tariff-free or are taxed only at very low levels while 40 of the poorest countries already enjoy free access to EU markets.

"Trade and development for ACP countries is about much more than just access to the European market," EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said.

"But by removing all remaining tariffs and quotas for all African, Caribbean and Pacific countries we will create the best possible opportunities for these economies," he added.

In reaction, the negotiator for the Caribbean ACP countries slammed the offer owing to the exceptions on rice and sugar, describing it as "derisory" and warning it could cause more harm than good.

"The European Commission offer threatens to poison the negotiating climate, especially at a time when both sides are making strides (on) flexibilities," said Junior Lodge.

"We therefore hope that good sense will prevail and the European Commission will offer all ACP regions a more constructive and attractive market access offer," he added.

Levies on sugar would be phased out by 2015 while a reform in subsidies for EU sugar farmers is carried out and a firm date has not yet been set for rice, the Commission said.

The offer did not cover South Africa, which has a bilateral trade agreement with the EU and which the Commission said produces "a number of globally competitive products."

The ACP group, made up mostly of former European colonies, has benefitted from preferential access to EU markets since the signing of the Lome accord in 1975.

But other equally poor countries, mostly in Latin America, have contested the ACPs' preferential treatment and have won backing from the World Trade Organisation.

In 2001, the world trade referee gave the EU until the end of this year to come up with a new framework that would be more compatible with international rules of commerce.

After their WTO defeat, the Europeans and the ACP opened talks in 2002 t reach new so-called economic partnership agreements which are being conducted by regions -- eastern, central and southern Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

But little progress has been made, and pressure is building as the year-end deadline approaches.

A number of development pressure groups, including Oxfam and Action Aid, consider the deadline to be unrealistic and have called for it to be pushed back.

The European Commission had promised that it would offer greater market access as part of the negotiations, which some development pressure groups have accused the EU of using to gain greater access to ACP markets.

Brussels said the new offer was not conditional on ACP countries matching the EU in tearing down tariff and quota barriers and that any greater market access they would have to provide to meet WTO rules could be phased in.

British pro-development pressure group Oxfam said the offer was the minimum the Commission could do and that it should not be used to strong-arm ACP countries into an agreement by the end of the year.

"Developing countries look set to be asked to open their markets dramatically, which could have seriously negative implications for poor peoples' livelihoods and future economic development," said Oxfam's Brussels head Luis Morago.

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