HL Deb 03 February 2005 vol 669 cc355-8

11.8 a.m.

Baroness Whitaker

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the proposed economic partnership agreements between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific states.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the European Union is an important trading partner for the 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific states and the proposed economic partnership agreements offer the opportunity for integrated trade, political co-operation and development assistance. The Government are working closely with the European Commission, other member states and NGOs to ensure that the agreements remain development focused.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that positive Answer, but can he do his best to see that the "Singapore issues"—that is to say, those concerning liberalisation of investment, competition policy and government procurement—are not inserted from the start as part of the agreement, but phased in, taking account of the capacity of the ACP states, and with the EU helping to build up their capacity?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, we certainly will do our best. I believe that we have achieved a central role in the EU in this regard. The Government believe that agreement on stable investment regimes and a positive competitive climate will foster the development of competitive industries in the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. We therefore believe that agreements on investment rules and competition policy should be a useful element in the wider partnership agreements. But—and it is an important but—the agreements have to be tailored to suit the relevant region involved.

My noble friend helpfully highlights the resource constraints on many developing countries and their governments, which we recognise. We have commissioned independent research on the best form of investment agreements and competition policy to further the development of those countries.

Lord Renton

My Lords, would it not be a mistake for the Government to support that agreement until the opinion of the British people has been revealed by the holding of the referendum on the European Union which the Government are committed to hold?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I am absolutely intrigued—as the House will be—to know that the referendum is to be on continued membership of the European Union. I have long suspected that that was the case. In respect of the point made, the development of trading policies and the attempt to assist the developing countries in fair trade will not wait for that kind of development. Whatever the outcome may be in any referendum, these trading agreements are vital to the health and development of the poorest countries in the world. We should put our shoulders behind that.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay

My Lords, would the Minister accept that the trade justice movement—led by Oxfam, Christian Aid and ActionAid—has serious concerns about the process by which these economic partnership agreements are being negotiated? One example is the recent opening of the Kenyan sugar market which meant that its industry was effectively wiped out, with very serious consequences in western Kenya. While we are all in favour of free trade, would he assure the House that the watchword for negotiating these agreements must be consent, not compulsion?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, in an earlier answer I was trying to emphasise that the agreements would necessarily be introduced over time. They will be—I apologise for the jargon—asymmetrical for some time. But I think that the United Kingdom is broadly right in taking this direction. Were we to go back and ask for a changed mandate in the EU, which plainly would be a possibility, there is a real risk that the change would not be so development friendly. Many of the more protectionist nations in the EU would probably come further to the front. That is perhaps particularly true of the accession countries, which do not have much of a tradition in this development focus. I take the noble Lord's point and I hope that timing and phasing will be the answer.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, the Minister sounds very confident about the new economic partnership agreements. Would he recognise that the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries will be in a worse position than they are presently under the Cotonou agreement? Further, would he recognise that they are in a trap of deadlines? They are in this principle of reciprocity, which means that they will have to be compatible with the World Trade Organisation and trade equally with the developed nations. How will we get them out of that trap?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the trap described by the noble Earl is a broader trap than perhaps he indicated. A significant number of developing countries are not in these agreements at all. All those countries will have to be treated on a par with one another under the WTO rules—which insist, in my judgment quite rightly, that whatever the past regimes, all the countries in the developing world must have equal access to the trading arrangements. That is the full impact of the rules. It will mean that those who have had preferential arrangements, compared with other developing countries, will wish to continue those preferential arrangements, but that seems hardly likely to succeed if everybody is to be treated the same.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, despite the Minister's Answer to the original Question, and following on from the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, what steps will Her Majesty's Government take to postpone the proposed EPAs in light of the WTO's consultative board report? That report called for developed countries' governments to show restraint in pursuing regional trade agreements to avoid damaging the multilateral trading system, especially since it warned that such agreements are not as beneficial for developing countries as the EU and US claim?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the timetable for the negotiations that we are engaged in has been established for some time. I do not think that the United Kingdom on its own can unravel that timetable, but we have not got to the point at which it will come to culmination. It is possible—the Government have made the point on a number of occasions—that there are alternatives to EPAs for those nations that believe that it is an onerous obligation. I will not go through those alternatives in detail because there are a significant number of them. There is nothing that compels any nation to enter into any of those agreements.

Broadly speaking, and even with the anxieties about the past preferential arrangements perhaps no longer being continued beyond 2005–06, most of the nations involved are actively engaged in these negotiations in trade groups. They have found that their capacity is far greater if they negotiate in trade groups rather than individually and bilaterally.

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