West African trade ministers are grappling with a June 30 deadline to conclude a comprehensive regional Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union. A regional trade ministerial meeting has just concluded in Abuja.

Speaking at the Abuja meeting, Economic Community of West African States Commission President Mohammed Ibn Chambas warned that the integration process in West Africa could suffer adversely if the regional grouping fails to reach a partnership agreement.

"Without concluding an EPA [Economic Partnership Agreement], our region will have different trade agreements with the European Union that will adversely affect our regional integration process. So we need indeed to conclude a regional agreement to avoid having different agreements because of the differential rate of development in our region," Chambas said.   

The EPA is a trade agreement that defines trade and development relations between Europe and West Africa.

Improved access into the EU market is particularly crucial for struggling West African economies. Divisions have emerged within ECOWAS with last year's signing of interim EPAs by Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Without a comprehensive regional EPA in place by the June deadline, countries in West Africa, the world's poorest region, may have to negotiate separate EPAs with the EU, undermining attempts over the past decades to forge regional economic ties.

Nigeria's trade minister, Achike Udenwa, says West Africa is an unequal partner in the negotiating process and this has made reaching a deal impossible so far.

"It is pertinent to recall why the EPA negotiations are still going on 18 months after it should have been concluded in December 2007," Udenwa said.  "It is so because this has been a negotiation between two unequal partners, the EU on one hand and the ACP countries on the other. Some of the outstanding issues that needed to be settled before the conclusion of the EPA are development issues, supply-side constraints, infrastructural facilities, capacity building, regional integration and adjustment cost of liberalization."

The slow down in economic activity in industrialized countries, as a result of the global meltdown, is having a negative effect on most African exports. Many West African countries also rely heavily on foreign aid and investments.

The 15-member ECOWAS has moderated growth rate of the region's economy in 2009 from 6.1 percent to 4.7 percent, due to the global economic crisis.