House of Commons
|Session 2007 - 08|
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General Committee Debates
European Standing Committee Debates
Economic Partnership Agreements
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
European Standing Committee
Monday 3 December 2007
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
Economic Partnership Agreements
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): This is a welcome opportunity again to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. It is entirely appropriate that you are in the Chair, given that the subject of development is, as hon. Members will know, particularly close to your heart.
I welcome the opportunity to debate both the Commission communication on economic partnership agreements and the proposed regulation, which will provide for the EUs market opening from 1 January 2008 to the countries that have agreed an EPA. Both are critical for putting in place EPAs with our partners in the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states.
We have come a long way from signing the Cotonou agreement, which set out the objectives and principles of EPAs, reflecting the need to agree a World Trade Organisation-compliant trade regime with the ACP states. Cotonou allowed us some seven years in which to conclude EPA agreements, and hon. Members will know that those negotiations were launched in 2002. In March 2005, the UK set out our view on what EPAs should look like in order to be good for development: ACP countries should receive duty-free, quota-free access to EU markets and better rules of origin, and they should not be forced to include matters other than trade in goods unless they specifically ask to. EPA market opening requirements should be asymmetric, allowing for long transition periods according to the needs of a region.
That position paper led to some disagreement with the Commission, and at times it felt as though the UK was the sole voice in Europe pushing for the agreements to deliver for development in that way. As negotiations have progressed, however, other countries have joined our push to ensure development-focused agreements and, slowly, the Commission has moved towards our position. This April, the Commission made the EUs market access offer: duty-free, quota-free access, albeit with transitional periods for just two products, rice and sugar. In September, it finally committed to improving rules of origin, after pressure from the UK in alliance with a number of other member states. That will help the ACP countries to add value to their products. We were pleased with that progress, although, of course, we wanted both those matters to be put on the table earlier and, in the case of rules of origin, with a little more ambition.
As the Committee will recognise, we are one of 27 voices, albeit a loud one in the Council and in discussions. Some of our EU colleagues would like the regulation to include a time limit for the ACP to conclude negotiations on other matters, such as services and investment, before
On 23 October, the Commission produced the communication that we are scrutinising today in order to deal with the impending deadline. Agreement of that communication at the November General Affairs and External Relations Council ensured that the EU took two important steps towards its aim of agreeing EPAs by the end of the year. First, it emphasised that negotiations should focus on concluding goods-only agreements by the end of the year, leaving other issues that are not essential for WTO compatibility until 2008. Secondly, it outlined the need to conclude sub-regional EPAs, where full regional EPAs were not possible. That is obviously not ideal, but we have consistently sought to prevent ACP countries from receiving worse market access to the EU on 1 January, and if sub-regional EPAs help to achieve that, I hope the Committee will recognise them as a pragmatic way forward.
EPAs have now been signed by 13 countries in three regions. Other ACP countries, however, are worryingly close to the deadline without having signed yet. The countries that have signed an EPA in the past two weeks were not in a position to agree on matters outside trade in goods, and the EPAs signed so far are only with sub-regional groups.
The draft regulation will grant the ACP duty-free, quota-free market access to the EU and improved rules of origin from 1 January. That delivers on two key parts of the UKs position on EPAs. The outstanding issue is which ACP countries will be allowed to benefit from the regulation.
We want as many ACP countries as possible to receive improved market access to the EU from 1 January 2008 and are pushing the Commission hard to show as much flexibility as possible when accepting ACP market access offers. That would ensure that as many ACP countries as possible are placed under the regulation and that they are not at risk of being subject to raised tariffs on 1 January 2008. At the Council of Ministers meeting on 20 November, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform asked the Commission to make a presentation of options and recommendations on those countries to EU Ministers at the next Council, on 10 December.
I hope that the Committee found that a useful introduction. I am ready to answer questions.
The Chairman: We now have until half-past 5 for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions must be brief and cover one subject at a time. There will be plenty of opportunities for hon. Members to ask more than one question.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley.
I have made a note of most of the Ministers points in that rather rushed opening statementI do not blame him for that, because we were expecting a vote at any minute. He said that since we debated EPAs in Westminster Hall last Wednesday, 13 countries in three regions have signed up to them. Which countries in which regions have signed? Which regions does he expect to sign by
Mr. Thomas: That cannot meet the requirement for questions to deal with one point at a time, but I shall try and do justice to the questions range and ambition.
Mr. Thomas: Agreements have been signed by the East African Community, which is a sub-region of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, which includes Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. Most members of the Southern African Development Community have also signed agreements: Namibia and South Africa did not, but Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique did, which is almost a full region. In the Pacific, Papua New Guinea and Fiji have also signed agreements with the Commission, and they account for 90 per cent. of EU-Pacific trade. The Commission is now working to regionalise that agreement.
The Caribbean has not yet signed, but negotiations are ongoing, and, as the hon. Member for Cotswold knows, substantial progress has been made. However, the negotiations are live, and therefore I cannot provide a definitive answer on where we are. Caribbean Heads of State meet at the end of the week to review progress on the EPA, and we are fully engaged with them. They met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to discuss progress.
A deal for the whole of central Africa by the end of the year looks unlikely. However, the Committee should remember that the least developed countries already benefit from duty and quota-free access to the EU through the Everything but Arms agreement. The key question, therefore, is what happens to the non-LDCs, which are Gabon, Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville. The Commission is discussing with them measures to avoid the trade disruption that would follow the imposition of a generalised system of preferences regime and the resulting increase in tariffs. I understand that Commission officials are in the region at the moment.
The non-LDC countries in west Africa are Ghana, Côte dIvoire and Nigeria. Again, it looks unlikely that a deal will be signed by the end of the year. Commission officials are in the region, and given our history, we are watching those discussions particularly closely. I have mentioned that the East African Community, a sub-region of COMESA, has signed. Zimbabwe and the Seychelles, two of the other non-LDCs in the COMESA region, have also signed with the Commission. Mauritius is the one non-LDC that has not done so, but it wants to and negotiations are under way as we speak. The key issue is to sort out the non-LDC situation by the end of the year, and I hope that I have clarified our current position.
The Chairman: Order. It was perfectly reasonable to ask which countries have and which countries have not signed, but due to the nature of the question, the reply was rather long, so I remind hon. Members once again that we need short questions and short replies.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Somewhere in the papers, I saw a reference to the Indian Ocean Region. Is that one of the ACP areas involved? If so, does it include the Chagos archipelago? My second question is, subsequent to
Mr. Thomas: The Indian Ocean Region is a reference to a sub-region of COMESA. It includes the Comoros islands, the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius. The IOR wanted to negotiate a sub-regional EPA with the Commission. That has not happened, but as I have said, the Seychelles has signed an agreement with the Commission, Mauritius is in negotiations and Madagascar and the Comoros islands are LDCs, so they already benefit from the biggest potential prizeduty and quota-free access under the Everything but Arms agreement. The two key countries in the IOR are the Seychelles and Mauritiusthe Seychelles has signed, and Mauritius is still locked in negotiations.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Will the Minister explain how EPAs, if signed, will be ratified, and what Parliaments role will be?
Mr. Thomas: The situation depends on the nature of the agreement. If it is a goods-only agreement, which is within the Commissions competence, it will be ratified once the regulation completes its passage through the Council of Ministers. There will be scrutiny in Parliament through the EU scrutiny process, which, in the traditional way, involves an explanatory memorandum from myself to the European Scrutiny Committee.
If, however, the agreement is more than a goods-only agreement and includes services and some of the Singapore issues, Parliament will have to approve it. As I understand it, the statutory instrument process will be the vehicle. Currently, it looks as though just goods-only agreements will be concluded, so they will go through the scrutiny process only.
Mr. Kilfoyle: May I try again, Mr. Bayley? In the perhaps forlorn hope that the Chagos islanders may one day be able to return to the Chagos archipelago, may I ask the Minister again whether it will be covered by any of the agreements or proposals that are set out in the documents before us?
Mr. Thomas: The British Indian Ocean Territory, or the Chagos islands, as my hon. Friend refers to it, is not covered by an EPA. Many Chagossians live in Mauritius, so in that sense they would be covered by an EPA, but the territory concerned would not be.
The Commission should be ready to provide an alternative to an EPA at the request of any ACP country.
We touched on that territory in an Adjournment debate last Wednesday. Will the Minister give us greater clarity about what will happen first, with an LDC, and secondly, with a non-LDC that does not sign by the end of the year? What will be their position?
Mr. Thomas: An LDC that currently has duty and quota-free access under the Everything but Arms agreement is unlikely to see any increase in tariffs on the goods that it trades into the European Union. The rules of origin package that has been negotiated under the EPAs is slightly more generous than that available under the Everything but Arms agreement, and those LDCs would not have access to that package straight off. Essentially, however, they will not be worse off as a result of not signing an EPA on 1 January.
The position for non-LDCs is somewhat different. The Commission says that countries that have not signed an EPA on 1 January should revert to the generalised system of preferences regime, which will mean a significant increase in tariffs on the goods of some countries, but that position must still be ratified by the Council of Ministers. We have made it clear that our position is that countries market access should be no worse on 1 January and we will be working for that at next weeks meetingindeed, we have been working for it with a number of other member states for some time.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The documents supplied by the Commission refer to a revenue consequence to member states of €13 million in lost income. The Ministers explanatory memorandum says that there are no financial implications for the UK as a result of these implications. Will he explain that apparent paradox, given that that the Communitys income is reduced and that we are a net contributor to the Community?
Mr. Thomas: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the sum that he mentioned is not hugely significant in the great scheme of things or compared with the scale of damage that would be done to developing countries and, therefore, the EUs long-term interests if these trade agreements are not concluded. I would always draw the Committees attention to any issue that involved significant implications for Britain, but that is not the case.
EPAs are intended to be in conformity with WTO rules.
Are the proposals not, in fact, over and above the requirements of the WTO or, indeed, the Cotonou agreement?
Mr. Thomas: The Commissions advice has always been that, to be WTO compliant, a goods-only agreement would have to see market opening of up to 80 per cent. of goods for the ACP regions. Some countries wanted to be go beyond 80 per cent., and the 13 countries that have signed up so far are WTO compatible. From what we understand of its figures, the East African Community will hit 82 per cent. over the lifetime of the agreement.
John Barrett: Back in 2005, the Government made a statement on what EPAs should deliver and how they should be pro-development. Will the Minister detail the public evidence that suggests that EPAs as they stand will be pro-development?
Mr. Thomas: Given that the 13 agreements have only just been signed, it is difficult to give immediate, up-to-date evidence. However, as I suggested in last weeks Westminster
The second significant development benefit will be simpler rules of origin. During our exchanges in Westminster Hall, I gave the hon. Gentleman the example of Lesotho, which already has the benefit of much more liberal rules of origin when selling its goods into the United States, as the US is not as prescriptive as the European Union about where Lesotho can get textiles for making clothes. As a result of the reforms to the rules of origin, countries such as Lesotho will have the opportunity to sell into EU markets in the way that they sell into the US. That is a huge potential prize for such countries. Other elements of those reforms will benefit other countries in different ways.
There are other development benefits, too. The agreements that have been signed contain measures allowing countries to protect infant industries for up to 10 years, and special safeguards will allow countries to deal with problems facing particular industries for much shorter periods. Under the agreement, up to 20 per cent. of a countrys goods need not be opened up at all, which is significant in terms of the revenue that tariffs on such goods raise for countries economies.
The other development benefit that I should like to highlight is more equal competition. Commissioner Mandelson has given a commitment that for countries that sign up to an EPA and sell goods into the EU market, similar goods coming the other way from the EU will not have any EU subsidy. Those hon. Members familiar with the common agricultural policy will know how much CAP subsidies have distorted world trade.
I believe that countries signing up to the EPAs will gain significant development benefits. Understandably, Trade Ministers negotiations go to the wire, but throughout the conversations that I have had, no country has not wanted to sign up to an EPAthe hon. Member for Cotswold alluded to that. However, the discussions are detailed, and we are now in the witching hour of negotiations.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister chose his words with great care in answering my question, because he knows the subject backwards, but I want to drill him to his answer, particularly on the matter of non-LDC countries that do not sign by 31 December. If I understand correctly, he said that they will have no worse market access after that date. What he did not say was that if one of those countriesfor example, Jamaicadoes not sign, the generalised system of preferences will apply to it on 1 January, and it will suddenly find a tariff raised against it that applies to about 25 per cent. of all its exports to the EU. That will be a disaster for the economy of such a country. How does he square that with the answer that I thought he gave to me in Westminster Hall last Wednesdaythat no country would be worse off by not signing by 31 December?
Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right. If non-LDCs revert to the GSP regime on 1 January, there will be a substantial hike in tariffs applicable to their goods, and that could be economically devastating. My point, which
We will articulate that position again at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on Monday in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State secured a commitment at the last meeting that the Commission would produce a report at this meeting to explore how the Commission will deal with the matter. We are looking forward to seeing the Commissions communication in plenty of time for us to make a considered judgment about the position that we should take on Monday. I give a commitment that we are determined to continue to push for no worse market access for non-LDCs heavily engaged in the negotiations. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that at this point we are one of 27 member states and, as I alluded to in my opening statement, not every member state shares our view of the nature of the negotiations. We have not always seen eye to eye with the Commission on that matter.
Mr. Jack: Article 20 deals with the concept of the approved exporter. Will the Minister outline what regime will be adopted by the Commission to ensure that systems put in place by exporting countries are rigorous in delivering on the articles provisions?
Mr. Thomas: If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give him an answer at this stage, but will return during the debate to the specific and detailed point that he raises and give him as full an answer as I can then.
John Barrett: When I asked the Minister in last weeks debate about the difficulty that the ACP countries have had in dealing with donor countries in Europe, he said:
Resources might be available for aid for trade in order to help implement the provisions of EPAs.[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 28 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 110WH.]
Will he clarify what that meant?
Mr. Thomas: Sure. On aid for trade, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the European development fund, which is one of the ways in which the European Union supports countries in the ACP region. The fund has had a significant uplift in financein comparison with the 9th European development fund, we are now in the 10thand there is no doubt that some of those increased resources can be used to help to deal with the aid-for-trade implications of signing an economic partnership agreement. In addition, member states have themselves agreed to commit to a further increase in bilateral sources for aid-for-trade resources. We have pledged a substantial increase in those resources and are well on the way to meeting those commitments. Our bilateral spending will inevitably help the ACP countries to deal with some of their aid-for-trade requirements.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: When I talked to senior Trade Ministers in Caribbean countries three or four weeks ago, they complained that the EU was being unnecessarily harsh, particularly on two aspects: the basket of exceptions
Mr. Thomas: Let me restate the position and add one or two points. We are well aware of the concerns of the Caribbean region and do not want any of the Caribbean countries to face worse market access and higher tariffs for their goods in the EU market from 1 January. That is one reason why the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development took significant time out from the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting diaries specifically to meet Caribbean Heads of State to discuss EPA arrangements. I hope to follow up on those discussions this week. We are well aware of the implications for the Caribbean region and we are seeking to support those countries as they work through their concerns with the Commissions negotiators.
In defence of the Commission, there was a considerable period of time before the point that we are now at. We have known for seven years that we would have to come to a conclusion regarding EPAs by this stage. Nevertheless, as we get into the detail of what are very technical trade agreements, Trade Ministers are focusing on some extremely difficult issues with their Heads of State. One thing that we have done to try to support the Caribbean nations throughout the process is to ensure that they have the capacity within their negotiating teams to handle the complexity of the full range of the talks, and to support their Ministers while they weigh up the drawbacks and benefits of particular provisions in the agreements.
I am aware of the potential significance of a reversion to GSP and the higher tariffs that the Caribbean nations might face. We are trying to support them as they work through the negotiations with the Commission so that they find a solution to the problem.
John Barrett: This is my final question. Does the Minister think that the ACP nations have been left with a raw deal, or does he think that they will end up with something that will not only be to their benefit, but be the best deal that they could have got? As the year approaches its end, there is a lot of concern that it is a case of them saying, Well, we have to make the best of a bad deal.
Mr. Thomas: As I have said to other hon. Members, what has been interesting is the ongoing commitment of ACP Ministers to negotiating an economic partnership agreement. I do not think that they would be as committed to that if they did not see the significant benefits for their countries. For non-LDCs, the opportunity to have greater access into the EUs marketpotentially lifting quotas on the sale of key goods into itis a huge prize for some key non-LDCs. For example, simplifying rules of origin would be a massive prize for Lesotho, and other countries will benefit in other ways.
In the long term, the biggest benefit for countries will be from the extra regional integration that flows from EPAs. The sub-regional EPAs that have been agreed have not yet produced as much regional integration as we would like, but hopefully there will be more integration over the course of next year.
LDCs will not be worse off. That is very clear. Those LDCs that will be part of EPAs will be better off as a result of the rules of origin and the regional integration. The key objective for the UK Government is to ensure that the non-LDCs are not worse off on 1 January 2008 and that they can use what is negotiated then as a stepping stone to more regional integration and, if they want them, to negotiations in other areas.
Mr. Jack: Will the Minister flesh out the benefits to the ACP countries which are anticipated as a result of these agreements as they build up over time?
Mr. Thomas: The right hon. Gentlemans question follows the question put by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West. There are a series of development benefits. The slightly richer ACP countriesthe non-LDCs which already trade into the EU marketwill no longer have to bump up against particular quotas. Some countries will be able to sell more beef, some will be able to sell more fruit, and some will be able to sell more rum into the EU market free of quotas and tariffs. That is potentially a huge prize, and it starts from 1 January for the non-LDCs that sign up. Beyond that, as I have said, rules of origin will be simplified, which is a huge prize for Lesotho and a number of other countries.
The regional integration benefits will develop. The East African Community has formed its own customs union, and the International Monetary Fund predicts growth rates of about 7 per cent. a year over the coming years. The economic partnership agreement that the East African Community has signed will help to add value to that customs union.
There is a series of other benefits from the agreement. I have mentioned the protection for infant industries, the safeguards that apply when there are surges in imports from particular areas and the fact that, in some cases, up to 20 per cent. of goods do not have to be liberalised or opened up at all. There is a series of benefits for ACP countries. I suspect that, in the long term, the two biggest benefits will be the duty and quota-free access offer for the non-LDCs and the regional integration for all ACP countries that will potentially flow from countries signing up.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I think that the Minister said that the Southern African Development Community had signed, with the exception of South Africa and Namibia. I understand that those two countries red lines centre on two things: the EUs insistence on inclusion of most favoured nation status and the insistence that the so-called Singapore terms, relating to investment, services and Government procurement, be included in the agreements. Will the Minister give the Committee an assurance that no country will be forced to include either the Singapore terms or the most favoured nation terms and that, if necessary, goods-only agreements will be signed? If
Mr. Thomas: Let me take the second part of the hon. Gentlemans question first. We have always been clear on the so-called Singapore issues. In our view, no country should have to negotiate and commit on those issues, if it does not want to, and the only area of agreement that was required to be WTO-compatible was an agreement on trade in goods. A number of countries have made it clear that they want to negotiate on services. The Caribbean, for example, definitely wants to negotiate on services, and a number of members of the SADC also want to do a deal. My understanding is that South Africa made it clear that it did not want to do so. That has been an issue for it, and there has been no question of the Commission trying to force South Africa to sign up on services.
This is one of the areas on which we have had a robust disagreementcriticism is too strong a wordwith the Commission: we thought all along that the Commission should concentrate on negotiating on trade in goods and not on seeking to pursue an agreement on services and the Singapore issues, unless regions made it clear that they wanted to make progress in those areas. Only more recently, as we have got closer to the wire, has the Commission moved on from wanting to negotiate in those other areas and just tried to drill down into the detail on trade in goods. That delay has not been helpful.
My understanding is that most favoured nation status has been a concern in the negotiations. I still hope that South Africa and Namibia will feel that they can resolve their issues with the Commission, because the benefits of regional integration that I have discussed in answer to other hon. Members questions would be that much greater for all the players in the SADC.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: One thing that has not come out in all the questions and debatesand, indeed, this afternoonis how the EPAs will strengthen regional co-operation and regional trade. It seems far from clear how that will happen, particularly if some countries in a region sign and some do notsome are LDCs and some are not. How does the Minister think that regional co-operation and inter-regional trade will be strengthened? That is, after all, one of the things that will benefit such small and often poor countries the most.
Mr. Thomas: The more countries that sign up to an EPA, the more regional integration there will be. There will not be as much as I suspect the Committee would want, or as much as would have come about, if all six regions had signed an EPA of sorts. There will be some benefits with respect to regional integration, and there will be some more regional integration, if not as much as we had hoped. We want the agreements that are signed to become the basis for further regional integration after 1 January as countries return to conversations with the Commission about how to take forward and expand what has been agreed.
Mr. Jack: In the course of negotiating the agreements, what effort was made to include environmental safeguards in the discussions? The temptation to exploit the natural environment to take advantage of a more benevolent
Mr. Thomas: We would expect the Commission to have touched on those issues in its impact assessments. Similarly, we would have expected developing countries to air, through their regional negotiating teams, any concerns that they had about tariffs being lowered on particular products. One reason we have always encouraged the Commission to be as flexible as possible has been to permit recognition of the circumstances in particular countries that might be relevant to certain products. Given the number of natural disasters that several African countries have suffered, and the difficulties with food security, we have in particular wanted enough flexibility in EPAs to permit protection against a surge of imports of a particular product that might be crucial for a countrys food security. In the agreements that have been signed to date, there is, we believe, sufficient flexibility to allow that protection.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister, again choosing his words carefully, said that he hoped that no country would be forced to agree to either the Singapore terms or the most favoured nation terms by the end of December. Assuming that that is so, but that there are individual countries or groupings of countries that sign a goods-only agreement by 31 December, as they are required to do, but which subsequently want to include the important areas of investment, Government procurement and services, what mechanism will there be after 31 December to add those items to the existing EPAs? Also, what mechanism will there be for reviewing those EPAs, if they are having an unforeseen but greatly deleterious effect on any country?
Mr. Thomas: On additional investment services and other Singapore issues, there is nothing stopping any region coming back to negotiate with the Commission. Given the original negotiating mandate that the Commission had from member states, I am sure that it would respond quickly and extremely positively to such a request.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about monitoring. There will be an EPA council for each region, or indeed each country, that has negotiated an agreement, and it will consist of representatives from the Commission and from the region, sub-region or individual country. They will meet to review progress and to find out whether there are problems, in which case they will examine them. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, there will no doubt be discussions about development spending and aid for trade to help with the implementation of the EPAs. A monitoring process is incorporated in them.
I wish to ask questions subsequent to the previous two points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde mentioned safeguards; has the Minister come to any conclusion on what the notional costs of those safeguards will be? On the point raised by my hon.
Mr. Thomas: The agreements have only just been signed in the case of the 13 countries, so a detailed monitoring process has not yet been agreed, nor would I have expected it to have been. We need to recognise that the Commission will focus on sorting out agreements in the regions and countries that have not yet signed them. I have no doubt that parliamentarians and all sorts of institutions, civil society organisations and business organisations in the relevant countries will want to know the details of the monitoring arrangements, and will encourage the Commission and their own Governments to put them together.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I pressed the Minister very hard last week on carrying out economic impact assessments. Will his Department assist any ACP country that wants assistance in carrying out a proper assessment once an agreement has been signed, so that he can assess what help his Department ought to give in aid for trade to cushion that country in its transition to dealing with the impact of the agreements?
Mr. Thomas: I think that if any country or region wished to review the likely consequences of what it had signed and approached member states for resources to do so, such a request would be viewed sympathetically. The UK is not active in the Pacific, but we are active in the Caribbean and most of the four African regions. We see ourselves as having particular responsibility in the areas in which we are active, but it would be a matter of examining what other member states were doing and what resources were available from the Commission through the European development fund. If there were gaps, we would need to consider collectively how to resolve them.
I add a word of caution: the Ministers to whom I have been speaking about the negotiations are focused on the details. Many of them are extremely impressive individuals who are clearly doing an excellent job in fighting their countries corners. I do not believe that any country that has signed so far, or is locked in negotiations with the Commission, is in any way weak or lacks the capacity to understand fully the implications of the agreements. Notwithstanding that, if we are faced with a request, we shall consider it.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The Chairman: The Committee is back in session. We will have injury time, so to speak, at the end of the sitting. We now have roughly an hour and 10 minutes. If no Member wishes to ask further questions of the Minister, we will now proceed to the debate on the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 14498/07, Commission Communication, Economic Partnership Agreements, and No. 14968/07 and ADD 1, Council Regulation applying the arrangements for goods originating in certain states which are part of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) provided for in agreements establishing, or leading to the establishment of, Economic Partnership Agreements; and welcomes the progress being made.[Mr. Thomas.]
Mr. Jack: The Minister said that he would be able to tell me more about checking authenticity and customs proceedings before the end of our debate on this important matter, and I want to ensure that he has the opportunity to do so. I would be most grateful if he could give me the information that I soughtpossibly by intervening on me.
Mr. Thomas: I cannot resist such an invitation. The right hon. Gentleman referred to article 20 and approved exporters, but those relate to two separate processes. As he knows, article 20 relates to surveillance measures and the potential for serious injury to Community industry from a sudden increase in imports from ACP countriesI suspect that that is relatively unlikely at this stage, but the Commission is nevertheless right to prepare for it. That is separate from the issue of approved exporters, which are dealt with on a company-by-company basis. That is a well-established system for facilitating trade by companies that meet the standard of approved exporter. As I say, decisions on which companies qualify as approved exporters are taken on a company-by-company basis. The two issues are therefore distinct and separate.
Mr. Jack: I am grateful to the Minister for giving me that outline, but the issue needs to be monitored with considerable care because benefit will be visited on some ACP countries under these arrangements, and one would not like to think that other countries might exploit that in a way that they should not.
I have one concluding point for the Minister. As the arrangements come to fruition, I hope that heperhaps through the medium of his Departments annual report
Mr. Thomas: Let me deal first with the point made during the debate by the right hon. Member for Fylde, because we had a very useful question-and-answer session. On the question of feedback, keeping the House informed about progress, and about the development benefits in particular, I shall, through the auspices of the Departments annual report, if not through other means, endeavour to keep the House informed. I have no doubt that civil society will continue to take an interest in the implementation of the agreements and write to Members. I am sure that the Select Committees on International Development, on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and indeed, perhaps on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which the right hon. Gentleman chairs, will retain a keen interest in how EPAs work out in practice. There will be many ways in which the House will continue to be kept informed about the detail of what has happened since the agreements were signed. With that, I commend the motion to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at eighteen minutes to Six oclock.
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