Promoting local milk to customers in a supermarket, Agadir , Morocco.<br/> Photo: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti / FAO

Promoting local milk to customers in a supermarket, Agadir, Morocco.
Photo: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

Free or fair – EU trade with the Maghreb region

The European Union has been in the process of negotiating free trade agreements with two countries in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Prospects for the two countries of Morocco and Tunisia were explored at an Open University event in Bonn, Germany.

In October 2015, the European Union and the Tunisian government entered talks on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). An agreement would further liberalise trade in agricultural products and in the services sector, oblige Tunisia to accept EU industrial standards and align regulatory policy. Negotiations on a DCFTA with Morocco have already been in progress since March 2013.

Jürgen Maier, Director of the German NGO Forum on Environment and Development, described the possible implications of the prospective EU agreements with Morocco and Tunisia during the discussion event “Free or Fair – Trade with the Maghreb Region” in October 2017.

EU co-operation with Africa has rested largely on the Cotonou Agreement of 2000, signed in, and named after, the capital of Benin. The Cotonou Agreement addresses the issue of poverty in the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) and seeks to support the integration of these countries in the world economy, and it was signed by all but one of the 79 ACP states as well as the then 15 EU Member States.

The Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) were devised in the Cotonou framework and aim to create a free trade area between the EU and the ACP states, thereby phasing out preferential treatment of the latter within the new trade relations. On the African continent, EPAs are being established with Central Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

A bad deal for Morocco?

The new DCFTAs would complement these agreements in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Algeria, having signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 2002, suspended a corresponding trade agreement in February 2016, with Prime Minister Abdellmalek Sellat declaring that goods imported by Europe from the country would no longer benefit from tax incentives and there would no longer be any prefer-ential treatment for Europe.
 
Maier explained that the benefits Morocco had been reckoning with from entering the new DCFTA would fall short of what the country had been expecting. “Morocco commits in the Agreement to allow tariff-free market access for agricultural imports from the EU over a ten-year period, whereas in return, the EU only grants Morocco higher export quota for the period from October to May. This is a bad deal,” he pointed out, adding that Morocco had already been disappointed by the EU’s adoption of its Common Agricultural Policy in 2013, which led to severe restrictions of Moroccan tomato exports to Europe.
 
Morocco has signed free trade agreements with a total of 56 countries since the mid-1990s. Its trade balance deficit has grown fourfold over the last ten years, equalling nearly a quarter of its gross national product, and accounted for mostly by trade with the EU. Unemployment has risen considerably in this period, notably in the textile industry, one of Morocco’s most important income sources. Between 1999 and 2014, nearly 30,000 jobs were lost in the industry, which has been unable to compete with European imports and is set to shrink by 65 per cent.
 
However, negotiations over the new DCFTA have stalled, one of the reasons being a ruling by the European Court of Justice last year. The Court ruled that Western Sahara could not be treated as part of Morocco, implying that accordingly, EU-Morocco trade agreements could not apply to that region. Also, there was stiff opposition to the DCFTA from civil society groups and from the business sectors affected by in-creasing volumes of imports from the EU.

The new EU agreement did not meet Tunisia’s needs

In Tunisia, both civil society groups and trade unions demanded that negotiations with the EU, which started in 2015, be accompanied by public consultation. They declared that the new EU agreement did not meet Tunisia’s needs and would create neither jobs nor social justice. Having witnessed the decline of Morocco’s textile industry, they warned that Tunisia’s manufacturing branches would suffer considerably from markets opening up to the EU.
 
Further issues criticised included the principle of providing for free trade of goods but not for the free mobility of people. Also, civil society organisations and unions demanded that all negotiating documents be disclosed to the public. Tunisia’s government explained during the first round of negotiations with the EU that it would have to be established whether the country actually desired an agreement of the kind at issue. 
 
Meier argued that the EU’s free trade policy in North Africa was one of the factors contributing to the refugee crisis and called for a greater regionalisation of production, especially in the agricultural sector.
 
The “Free or Fair – Trade with the Maghreb Region” event was organised by the Bonn-based German-Maghrebine Association.

Mike Gardner, journalist, Bonn/Germany