BRUSSELS - Anti-poverty campaigners demonstrated in more than 40 countries yesterday to protest at the European Union's insistence on sealing new free trade pacts with the world's poorest countries this year.
Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, warned yesterday that 77 of the world's poorest countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific would face "less generous tariff rates" in trade with the EU unless they completed negotiations on new "economic partnership agreements" (EPAs) with Brussels by the year's end.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has set the deadline for the talks, which opened five years ago to liberalise trade between the EU and the world's poorest regions and phase in the abolition of tariffs. Many developing countries fear the agreements will expose their economies to a ruinous invasion by European goods, services and business. Brussels argues that the pacts will create a more benign climate for badly needed European investment.
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According to campaigners protesting yesterday, senior EU officials have been threatening to cut aid to Africa if there is no breakthrough. Luis Morago, head of Oxfam International in Brussels, said: "Threats to withhold aid and increase tariffs on exports have not helped but simply piled on the pressure in an entirely unjust way. If EPAs are signed because of a WTO deadline, rather than because they are good for development, they will fail."
World Bank and trade union officials are also urging Mr Mandelson to secure WTO blessing for extending the talks. Bibiane Mbaye, of ActionAid, said Brussels was using "strong-arm politics" to bully African countries into signing up. Campaigners say the pacts would see "the dumping of cheap agricultural products" at the cost of local producers.
In an attempt to rebut the critics, Mr Mandelson and the EU aid commissioner, Louis Michel, released an open letter yesterday, arguing that the new pacts were long overdue: "The negotiations are forcing us to face up to difficult issues ... No one believes the status quo is working."
© 2007 The Guardian