Third World fears future without Lome

EU reluctantly renews aid pact with ex-colonies, writes Katherine Butler

Port Louis, Mauritius - When the European Commission discovered that about 30 of its civil servants were due to travel to Mauritius for Saturday's signing of a new European Union trade and aid pact with 70 of the world's poorest countries, it ordered an inquiry.

Asked why it was essential for them to make the trip, most said they believed it was important to show solidarity with the developing world.

Just as this explanation failed to convince the higher-ups in the Commission - only seven officials made the trip - Europe is failing to convince its former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) that it is committed to solidarity with their struggle against poverty.

The Lome Convention was renewed for five years on Saturday amid fears that with Europe's changing strategic interests, the special relationship will not survive beyond 2000.

Designed originally as a life-support mechanism for the former colonies of Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, the agreement offers more than pounds 12bn in aid over the next five years. More importantly, it provides better trade terms than those offered to other Third World exporters in Asia or Latin America.

However, as guilt for the colonial past subsides and the EU's preoccupation with its commitments in Central and Eastern Europe increases, the developing countries fear they could be facing a future without Lome.

Revising the pact took 15 months; the negotiations were overshadowed by a bitter squabble among EU countries over the size of their contributions to the aid budget. Britain wanted to slash its donation by 30 per cent.

The new aid deal, agreed only after Germany secured backing for a multi- billion-pound cash package for Eastern Europe, offers the ACP states no increase in real terms on the previous agreement.

To compensate, EU officials insist that new trade provisions will make it easier for ACP exports to penetrate European markets. But products which might pose a competitive threat, such as olives, lemons and wine, are still subject to high tariffs. "We talk about opening markets, but as soon as it comes to anything sensitive, forget it,'' one EU diplomat admitted.

Sectors such as textiles, where Mauritius might pose the faintest threat to EU garment-makers, are excluded from other trade concessions in the new agreement. Yet the island nation, which exports hundreds of thousands of tons of textiles and sugar to Europe each year, believes that trade is more important than aid to all but the poorest countries.

The Mauritian Prime Minister, Aneerood Jugnauth, says the bruising round of negotiations was an eye-opener. The end of the Cold War and the loss of any strategic stake in Africa, he said, explains Europe's "fast fading" interest in the relationship. "We are witnessing a growing movement towards the marginalisation of the South as the focus of the European Union's geopolitical interests seems to be increasingly directed towards other regions of the world."

The British Government says its priority is to maintain bilateral relationships in the developing world rather than bolster a Brussels-managed agreement which is inefficient, badly administered and unworkable.

Brussels officials, too, are prepared to concede that Lome as a development instrument is running out of steam and that thoughts should be turning to a new model.

Changes in world-trade rules will ultimately render the agreement's trade preferences illegal. The Lome Convention enjoys a waiver from the rules of Gatt but beyond the year 2000 that may not be renewed by the World Trade Organisation. "Geopolitically and economically so many things have changed,'' said Joao de Deus Pinheiro, EU commissioner for relations with the ACP. ''We must look at the convention with new glasses."

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