You see, the thing about the EU is that it’s first and foremost supposed to promote and facilitate free trade. Of course, as not every country in the world is a member of the EU, what it’s ended up being is a kind of free trade area. (Only not a perfect one, obviously, thanks to the vagaries of cross-border economics, the lack of a pan-EU single currency and such like.)
But one of the biggest, most damning criticisms of the EU is that the Single Market amounts to little more than a customs union, a zone of economic protectionism for EU member states, which is doing more than pretty much anything (well, bar the Common Agricultural Policy, perhaps) to screw the chances of developing nations to grow their own international trade and compete on the global stage.
Well, too little too late, perhaps, but in recent years the EU has been making some vague noises as if it’s going to try to rectify this situation. Most of which, it must be said, have been due to external pressure, such as the recent battle with China over EU restrictions on clothing imports, or the discussions with the US a year or so back, during which the Americans offered to drop their agricultural subsidies to US farmers if the EU would likewise drop the CAP. (Thanks to France’s reliance on the current CAP arrangements, unsurprisingly this cut no dice. But had the deal gone ahead, lefties world wide would have ended up in the amusing position of having to revise their hatred of George W Bush, because if that proposal had been accepted then it would have done more to alleviate global poverty than pretty much any agreement ever… Heads would doubtless have exploded in confusion.)
The major reason for this change of protectionist heart is that the World Trade Organisation has also ruled that the EU’s current elaborate system of deals with non-EU countries (largely the “ACP countries“) is illegal. Dubbed “preferential trade agreements”, they were largely (if unconsciously) modelled on the deals France got in at the EEC’s foundation to allow former French colonies access to European markets, but have the added benefit of artificially stabilising prices. Fine for rich European nations – cheaper food. Rather worse, however, for poor African farmers, desperately trying to find a market for their meagre goods.
So, thanks to the WTO, all these preferential trade agreements have to be replaced with “economic partnership agreements” (EPAs) by the end of this year. The idea, coming out of the Cotonou Agreement of 2000, is to gradually remove all the trade preferences and barriers that have developed between the EU and the 80-odd ACP countries over the last 30 years, to allow much more free economic development, and a much more equal trading partnership. And, to ensure that the WTO doesn’t get annoyed again, the EPAs will be available to every developing nation in the world.
With only a few exceptions, such as arms and munitions (and, I believe, sugar and rice for some reason), this will finally begin to create a much more free system of global trade, and – hopefully – begin to allow less developed countries to get a few benefits from globalisation for a change.
Thanks to Spain (and the EU’s continued veto system, which the failed constitution was to rectify) the entire deal could be screwed, because our Iberian friends have seemingly only just realised – seven years after the Cotonou Agreement was made – that, erm, Spain grows a lot of bananas, and so do quite a few of the developing nations that the new EPAs are being set up with.
Yes, yes it does seem like Spain may have completely missed the point of “free trade” here. But they are also threatening to use their veto if they don’t get some kind of exemption for bananas (elections next year, and they don’t want to risk losing the farming vote). This will, of course, open the floodgates to every other EU member state to start demanding revisions and exemptions for their own pet products. Which will, of course, defeat the whole object of the thing.
Still, I have a solution. Scrap nation states’ vetoes. Scrap nation states. Scrap elections. Appoint me first President for Life of the European Union, and I’ll sort everything out. It’s the only way we’re ever going to get anything done, by the looks of things. The EU needs countless reforms, both major and minor, but every time it looks to be getting somewhere some uppity member state starts getting all selfish on us, usually for electoral reasons, and screwing everything up.
It can’t just be me who’s getting annoyed with this childishly petty short-termism of our dear elected representatives, can it? These new arrangements could have a massively beneficial impact on some of the poorest countries in the world, but because a few over-subsidised farmers in the Canary Islands may be unable to compete on a level playing field, Spain’s prepared to sign the death warrant for countless poor subsistence labourers throughout the third world. I mean, I’m not much of a one for all this “Live8” and “Make Poverty History” nonsense, being far too cynical for all that, but really: what a bunch of absolute bastards.