The African Commercial Renaissance

In current trade with the rest of the world, our Continent has taken the bandwagon. Or, rather, he was pushed to take it under rules made outside his will or interests, but to which Africa had no choice but to submit.

These rules, the foundations of which were laid by the United States in the aftermath of the last Great War, were designed to deal primarily with trade disputes between one sovereign state and another. In those days, America had a long and comfortable lead over all other countries in virtually every area and was little concerned with the potential competition from a third country. After the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), the WTO (World Trade Organization), also in Geneva, is the body responsible for ensuring compliance with the rules in question.

To put it simply, a State which feels aggrieved by the commercial practices of another State submits, like what is done before the courts, its grievances to the WTO and waits on the reasoned opinion of this international court. When, in its reasoned opinion, the WTO accepts the arguments of the complainant state, it also advocates commercial measures to compensate for the damage suffered.

Pending the verdict, the hurted country can of course continue to trade with other partners in other markets more acceptable to its taste.

In this respect, if any of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, or other countries like China, has submitted grievances to the WTO in the past, African countries have not been inclined to seek consultations from this body. Indeed, using the WTO service is not simple and can be very expensive for our penniless countries. It is necessary to prepare a solidly documented and argued case, that is to say made by insider experts, who are usually found in Western countries and come back very expensive.

In addition, if we consider certain cases listed, these experts do not always offer a sufficient guarantee of neutrality in the files entrusted to them. This is particularly the case when it comes to the questioning of his own country. Then there is the time taken by the WTO to reach its verdict at first instance, which is counted in years. In addition, before the WTO decision is enforceable, it can be challenged before the appeal body (see below) and, again, the judgment can take many years in turn. For all these considerations, few low-income countries like ours in Africa could afford the services of the WTO.

In practice, our countries which export products from the agri-food sector have become accustomed to redirecting the product to another, more conciliatory country, if their first export fails. Thus, thirty years ago and more, it had happened, for example, that canned Moroccan sardines, whose histamine level had been judged to be non-standard by Germany, were accepted in France or in Italy.

However, in the 1990s, European countries, whose local regulations (in each country) remained different from each other as they have always been, accelerated the establishment of new “harmonized health standards”, applicable to their external border posts. In short, a harmonization decided in order to lock the Community market and better weigh on trade negotiations conducted separately with, in particular, each of our poor African countries.

From then on, exports of agri-food products from our African countries began to suffer seriously because the refusal of a product by an EU country closed the door to the entire single market. The EU has found in this arsenal of private standards, tailor-made to administer access to their common market, a new formidable means of coercion to illegitimately exploit African Food Raw Materials for their almost exclusive benefit while exercising a downward pressure on prices. This scheme has worked well in the case of African countries to the point that, apparently, the EU has felt the eagerness to test it elsewhere in their negotiations in other Forums.

To give more weight to this unprecedented maneuver of instrumentalization of the Community market for the purposes of trade negotiations, the EU has completed its paraphernalia by giving itself certain attributes which are the responsibility of a sovereign country such as flag, anthem, embassies etc. The supposedly sought-after goal of the EU, which absorbs the vast majority of exports from the African agri-food sector, was to weigh more heavily, inter alia, on negotiations of all kinds with our African countries, taken separately, for product prices traded and for trade preferences. Not only the European Bloc could, through the Brussels Commission, sanction a recalcitrant country by using instruments to restrict its trade with the EU, but it has become possible for it to use other sanctions, if necessary, in the diplomatic field.

Putting it bluntly, the EU has somehow cleverly distorted the predefined use of WTO trade rules. While these rules were to be used to deal with disputes between two countries in disagreement, on the basis of Codex standards, the EU has, on its own initiative, appropriated the right to use them in its negotiations on the basis of private standards in a balance of power of 28 European states, plus the EU considered in this connection as a separate state, against African countries taken individually one after the other. It seems difficult in these conditions not to win each time, especially if such negotiations are coupled with threats of trade and / or diplomatic sanctions.

The use of EU private standards in place of Codex standards to influence negotiations, however, showed its limits when the European Bloc used them in the discussions in the Doha Round Forums. India was among the first countries to denounce the European Bloc’s maneuvers. But this enduring EU practice will have lasted long enough to leave no doubt in the eyes of American officials that the purpose for which the WTO was originally set up was completely deviated by the EU to serve its exclusive commercial interests in full view of all. So, acting according to the adage “At the top of the effort, there is action“, the US has vetoed the renewal of the judges of the WTO appellate body rendering de facto this body inoperative since December 11th.

Of course, trade in the international trade arena, as is the case in other fields, will always need rules. The WTO will therefore have to be rethought in the light of the changes that have taken place in the world since the last Great War. In this context, there is the fact that Africa is aware, in particular, of its strong potential on the agrifood level and would legitimately want to take advantage of it as fair. The leaders of the ACFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area), which is being set up, will therefore naturally have a say in the development and implementation of the new rules for managing international trade which will be devolved to the WTO in its upcoming version.

The renaissance of African international trade comes at this price.