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West Africa Plays for Time in European Trade Negotiations

West African trade ministers have given themselves another 18 months to negotiate before signing a regional economic partnership with Europe. But the current trade agreement between Europe and nearly 80 of its former colonies has been declared illegal by the World Trade Organization and is set to expire in two weeks. This could throw many countries in West Africa into disadvantaged trading positions. Naomi Schwarz has more from Dakar.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a special meeting on Monday to discuss the next steps in a proposed region-wide trade deal with Europe.

The deal, called an economic partnership agreement, offers lower tariffs on West African exports to Europe in exchange for lower tariffs on European products sent to West Africa.

The president of the West African economic body's commission, Mohammed Ibn Chambas, says the ministers reaffirmed their decision that the new deal in its current form is unacceptable.

"We believe that the EPA can be an instrument for development and for deepening regional integration in West Africa, but it has to be negotiated, taken into account, the development dimension," he said. "Not just focusing on the trade aspect. And to have a balanced and development-oriented EPA, we will need some time to conclude a full agreement."

West African leaders say they want another 18 months to negotiate. They say if Europe can export products to Africa tax-free, then African products will not be able to compete in their own markets. They say the money they earn from customs fees is a huge part of their national income and that eliminating them could cripple their economies.

West African countries have an agreement with Europe that allows them to charge customs duties on European imports, while Europe charges them low, and sometimes zero, tariffs, but the old trade deal expires in two weeks.

This would hit some countries harder than others. Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast have the biggest economies in West Africa, so they do not qualify for the special assistance Europe gives the world's least developed nations.

To protect their economies, Ghana and Ivory Coast, the world's top two cocoa exporters, signed interim deals with the European Union in the last two weeks.

This disappointed some, who worry that country-specific deals will undermine regional negotiations. Part of the reason the European Union said it would work with regions instead of individual countries was to encourage trade within regions. Traditionally, the former colonies trade much more with Europe than with each other.

ECOWAS president Chambas says the interim deals with Ghana and Ivory Coast will not weaken regional cooperation.

"I think certainly it was a divisive ploy on the part of the European Commission, but it has not worked to weaken the solidarity of the region," he said. "Our meeting re-emphasized and underscored the solidarity of the region and the determination of all the countries to move within a regional context."

The European Union says it is still committed to negotiating a full deal with West Africa as a region.

A spokesman for the European Union development commission, John Clancy, says the EU worked out these interim deals to ensure trade would not be interrupted when the old deals expire on December 31.

"It became an urgent issue to ensure that with all the countries who are willing to do so and in order to maintain these trade flows that we had a WTO compatible system in place," he explained. "So what we worked upon was to ensure that there were these interim EPAs to ensure that these trade flows could continue. And what we have placed within them is a kind of insurance to guarantee the continuation of talks on the regional level to reach these full EPAs through 2008."

The European Union says free trade will help African economies develop in the long run, and says it will provide assistance to offset short-term problems.