Europe must slow down planned cuts in banana import duties to alleviate the socio-economic hardships that market liberalisation will mean for its former colonies, Africa’s top banana exporter states said on Tuesday.
EU regulators have been negotiating with Latin America’s leading banana suppliers towards an agreement that would gradually reduce import tariffs through to 2016 and put an end to the “banana wars” that have dragged on since the 1990s.
That has given banana producers in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group — largely former colonies of Britain, France and Portugal — a major headache.
These producers, used to years of duty-free access to the lucrative EU market, fear Europe will become even more swamped by cheaper fruit from Latin America, which already supplies some 80 percent of EU banana imports.
The latest offer from Brussels has been rejected by ACP producers, especially leading exporter countries Cameroon and Ivory Coast, which want smaller tariff cuts over a longer period.
“For us, it’s really too quick and too low (a tariff),” Anatole Ebanda Alima, Europe delegate for the Cameroon Banana Association ASSOBACAM said. “It doesn’t give us time to adjust; for certain countries it would mean saying goodbye to bananas.”
“The ACPs have made a proposal … a reduction to 150 euros ($203) … and maintain that level for a certain number of years and compensate that with accompanying measures to allow them (farmers) to adapt. We have proposed a freeze of four years.”
Ecuador, the world’s largest banana exporter, has led pressure from Latin America for the EU to stick to a deal negotiated in July 2008 on the sidelines of a Geneva meeting of ministers seeking a breakthrough in the WTO’s Doha round.
That deal fell apart as the WTO talks collapsed.
In February, the European Commission updated its July offer into another one that would cut tariffs as early as possible to 148 euros/tonne from 176 euros now, then to 136 euros by 2011.
The idea is to cut the duty to 114 euros by 2016, but the means of getting there is, for the Commission, largely dependent on a Doha agreement. One scenario, it has suggested, could be to freeze remaining annual cuts if there is no Doha deal by 2012.
“There are several studies that have shown that for the moment, below 150 euros it would be difficult for ACP countries,” said Philippe Mavel, European delegate for Ivory Coast’s Central Organisation of Pineapple, Banana and Mango Producers-Exporters (OCAB).
“This has to be integrated within Doha, in a separate agreement linked to Doha because it was an element of the negotiation at the time, in July,” he said in an interview.
The Commission, which negotiates foreign trade on behalf of the EU’s 27 member countries, is caught between the two sides.
Over the years, Latin American countries have won a string of WTO cases against Brussels and Europe is now obliged, under international trade law, to “bring its policy into compliance”. If it does not, the Latin countries can apply trade sanctions.
ACP countries, on the other hand, have the leverage of threatening to block a final agreement in the Doha round.
“There are already ACP countries that don’t export any more; Cape Verde and Somalia, for example, have disappeared from the market,” ASSOBACAM’s Ebanda Alima said.
“All the countries will be affected, differently,” he said. “We have the impression that development is being sacrificed on the altar of trade — pure and simple.”