The EU is now very confident the protracted negotiations for an economic partnership agreement (EPA), which will further open EU and southern African trade markets to each other, will conclude this year.
EU ambassador to South Africa Roeland van de Geer says that after an intensive round of trade negotiations early in the year, and another in September, the next round in South Africa in November should nail down the EPA between the EU and seven Southern African Development Community members, which has eluded the sides for seven years.
An EPA would give South Africa greater access to the EU market, especially for its vital agricultural exports, than it has under the present 13-year-old free trade agreement, but it will also mean opening up the South African market to some European goods.
For Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland an EPA is even more vital, as they will lose substantial access to the EU market by next October if it is not signed.
Van de Geer said last week that although both sides had signalled optimism in the past, this time he was “really confident” the EPA would be nailed down this year.
He said EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht would come to South Africa on November 11 to meet Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies to try to conclude a deal.
Davies was less sanguine, saying only that “the end is in sight but a few matters still have to be resolved”.
He noted that only 65 percent of South Africa’s agricultural product lines had been allowed duty free or preferential access to the EU in the trade, development and co-operation agreement that had been operating since 2000.
Meanwhile, the trade imbalance with the EU was growing, especially in agriculture.
Responding to the EU’s claim that it had made a generous offer on increasing access of South African agricultural imports and was waiting for South Africa’s response, he said: “We think we have made a generous offer by allowing over 200 geographic indications.”
He noted that the EU was looking for more than this, requesting also greater market access for some agricultural goods.
The EU’s deputy ambassador, Axel Pougin de la Maisonneuve, said there was a new sense of urgency to wrap up the negotiations this year – not least because the EU had set a deadline of October 1 next year for the EPA to be put into effect or Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland would lose their special interim access to the EU markets.
He said the negotiations had been narrowed down to three main areas where agreement had to be reached. The first was trade-off tariffs on agricultural exports from both sides.
He said the EU had put a generous offer on the table to give South Africa greater access for products such as canned and fresh fruit, cut flowers and ethanol, while sugar and wine were also “potential candidates”.
The second main area of talks in November would be around protecting “geographic indications” – which effectively ruled on geographic regions that become trademarks.
He said the other thorny issue that still had to be resolved was South Africa’s demand for export taxes to be placed on certain raw materials.