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Economic Partnership Agreements

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 22 November 2007

4. What progress is being made in negotiations on economic partnership agreements; and if he will make a statement. (166785)

There has been progress in discussions between all African, Caribbean and Pacific regions and the European Union, and further negotiations will take place next week. We continue to work to maximise the development benefit from economic partnership agreements.

As my hon. Friend knows, there is a great deal of criticism of the speed with which some of the deals are being done, especially in countries that feel under pressure to achieve a preferential deal by the end of the year. What measures is he taking to ensure that the deals are good for the countries involved, and that they are not being forced into taking something they do not want? What exactly are the development benefits that he foresees from such deals? There is a great deal of scepticism about what they are.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, concerns have been expressed, in particular by some civil society groups, about the pace of the negotiations. However, I remind the House that we have known for a considerable time that we would be in this situation, and that we continue to hear from all developing countries in the ACP regions that they want to negotiate an economic partnership agreement. The specific development benefits that we have fought for, and secured, are that all ACP regions should have duty and quota-free access to the EU market. We have achieved that, albeit with transitional periods for two products. Furthermore, we want much simpler rules of origin to maximise the benefits of that duty and quota-free access offer, and there has been significant movement in that direction, although we would have liked a little more.

As the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) has just said, the agreements have to be concluded by 31 December, so time is short. As the Minister knows, the EU Commission is using its full might to negotiate with some very small countries in the ACP regions. Over recent weeks I have visited a number of those countries, where I met senior Ministers—and there is concern because they feel that the British Government have not stood up enough to make sure that proper impact assessments have been carried out so that the severe downturn in jobs and employment, and the damage to some of their economies, can be properly cushioned by a realistic package of international development assistance. Before signing the agreements, what will the British Government do to ensure that the transitional assistance is in place?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I, and other Ministers, have been in discussion with a series of developing countries in each ACP region. As I have pointed out, all developing countries indicated that they continue to want to sign economic partnership agreements. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there will be some adjustment costs and he will, I am sure, have noted the significant increase in funding for development through the EU development fund and in the bilateral budgets of a range of EU member states to help with the costs of adjustment. In addition, we have secured commitments from the commissioner that the pace of market opening from the ACP regions will be at the pace that the ACP countries want. Indeed, markets for some goods from the ACP regions will not have to be opened at all.