As the December deadlines for the signing of a key trade agreement approaches, another round of negotiations between SADC Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) countries and their EU counterparts will get underway in South Africa next week.
In June, ministers from the seven EPA countries met in Gaborone and approved timelines for the finalisation and signing of a comprehensive EPA with the EU. Under the agreement, the states committed themselves to resolving sticking points that have seen negotiations drift past the original December 2007 deadline, enforceable by the World Trade Organisation.
The SADC-EPA group also committed itself to concluding negotiations on trade in services and investment by 2014, which - together with trade in goods - makes up the comprehensive EPA.
Trade and Industry Minister, Dorcas Makgato-Malesu, who is the SADC-EPA group's chief coordinator, was recently in Brussels securing buy-in from the EU for the timelines and strategy. Yesterday, sources close to the trade talks told Mmegi that the SADC EPA and EU groups had, in July, committed themselves to holding three joint meetings before year-end aimed at progressing finalisation and signing of an EPA covering trade in goods.
After next week's meeting in South Africa, it is expected that two more European Commission/SADC-EPA joint meetings will be held before the end of the year.
"After the ministers' meeting in June in Gaborone, there was another senior officials' meeting of EC/SADC-EPA between July 27 and 28 in Brussels, where it was agreed that three more joint meetings would be held to finalise negotiations," a source said.
"The first will be in South Africa next week. But on Wednesday, the SADC-EPA group will meet internally as a region ahead of the joint meeting. The joint meeting is at senior official level,
Besides the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Botswana will send representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, which is tackling issues of food safety standards; and the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, which will negotiate on economic issues. The Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism is also expected to send senior officials.
On the table of joint meetings will be hot topics such as alignment of market access tariffs between SACU, South Africa and the EU and rules of origin. EU and SADC-EPA technocrats will be hoping to replicate last year's success in Swakopmund, Namibia when the two sides sealed an agreement on five previously contentious issues. Next week's negotiations will also provide another opportunity for SACU to test its solidarity following the success of the July Heads of State and Council of Ministers meeting in South Africa. With speculation that the 100-year-old union was on the brink of collapse, the five SACU states emerged from the Pretoria Presidential Guest House meeting united and resolute around negotiations with the EU. Last June, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland signed an interim EPA with the EU, while Namibia initialled the document but did not sign, attaching a list of concerns instead. South Africa and Angola did not sign either, citing unresolved issues as well.
Cohesion within SACU directly affects the pace of SADC-EPA talks with the EU because five of the SADC group's seven members belong to the customs union as well.