Brussels, 18 July 2013/ ACP/ PINA/ IB/ RA: The EU has suspended efforts to settle a trade deal with the 14-member Pacific ACP bloc, despite demands from the region to wrap up negotiations by the end of the year, according to Pacific media reports.

A statement by the Vanuatu Ministry of Trade, cited by the PINA news agency, confirmed the two sides were unable to resolve “serious divergences” at the last round of talks on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) earlier this month.

One of the key clashes was over fisheries management, where Pacific countries refused EU requests to bring in changes to Pacific countries’ national laws on fisheries management, as well as specific commitments on access to Pacific fisheries resources under the agreement. Instead, the region referred to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission as the competent forum.

Other contentious issues covered global sourcing, trade in services and market access issues.

Although the Pacific ACP countries asked to meet again in September 2013, the EU has put off any further talks while it takes a “period of reflection” to consult stakeholders.

The decision follows a previous ultimatum from the Pacific side to close a deal by December 2013, or face the group’s withdrawal. Regional trade magazine Islands Business cited a letter, dated 4 June, sent from the Pacific’s lead spokesperson on EPAs, Tongan cabinet minister Hon. Dr. Viliami Latu to EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht, which stated:

“We will be submitting our final report to our leaders at their meeting in September 2013 and …if no tangible progress is made before then – this could be the end of our 10-year long negotiating process. This would be disappointing, especially after spending so much time and money on this process… We have reached a point where we need to conclude this process one way or the other.”

However, the EU Commission’s Director overseeing EPAs, Mr. Peter Thomas publically responded that the timeframe expected by its Pacific partners was not “reasonably possible”.

“I have had 30 years of negotiations in my life and frankly with the number and depth and complication of issues that we have in front of us I do not see this as being just a few months work,” he said.

The meeting weeks later in Brussels did not yield much progress. Pacific delegations said an agreement by the end of the year is unlikely “unless a major shift is observed in the EU’s position.”

EPA negotiations began in 2004. While the two biggest economies in the region – Papua New Guinea and Fiji – signed interim deals with the EU in 2007, there is yet no comprehensive regional agreement.

(Pictured: Pacific ACP spokersperson on EPAs, Tonga's Minister for Commerce, Tourism & Labour Hon. Dr. Viliami Latu/ Photo by TaimiOnline)

– ACP Press/ PINA/ IB/ RA