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Burundi faces new European Union campaign to intensify economic sanctions

European lawmakers want Burundi excluded from becoming beneficiary of free trade agreement between the EU and the East African Community.

An intense political and diplomatic campaign by a group of European lawmakers is underway to stop Burundi—marred by chaos—from becoming a beneficiary of a free trade agreement between the European Union and the East African Community (EAC), grouping five states in East Africa.

Should the campaign to exclude Bujumbura from signing the trade deal with the European Union (EU) on account of human rights violations succeed, it would mark a turning point. It would be the start of economic sanctions against the regime of President Pierre Nkurunziza.

European aid to Burundi remain suspended on the grounds that President Nkurunziza’s third term violates principles of democracy and the violence in the country and the actions of the security forces amount to gross violation of human rights which does not qualify Burundi to benefit from trade.

The lawmakers from the European Parliament traveled to Nairobi last week for talks with top trade officials in Kenya in search of an alternative to the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).

The EU is looking for alternatives to an EPA that would allow Kenya to continue trading with the bloc because it is the only East African Community country at risk of paying higher export taxes to the European market if a deal extending the duty-free benefits is not extended by October.

Bernd Lange, Chairman of the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee (INTA-DEVE) said the possibility of having no agreement between the EU and the EAC could “hurt trade.”

The lawmakers want Burundi excluded from the trade agreement but doing so will also hurt the interest of Kenyan exporters of farm produce to the European market controlling nearly 38 percent of the market.

Kenya is willing to sign the EPA with the EU, but the neighbouring Tanzania, which has also been negotiating the deal with the EU, insists it will not sign the European trade agreement because of the outcome of the British referendum to exit (Brexit) the European Union.

“This is not our favourite,” Lange said, regretting the possibility of excluding Burundi and Tanzania holding out on the deal. “The clear approach is to give a push to Tanzania and to try to improve the situation in Burundi and bring the country back on the path to democracy.”

During their visit to Nairobi, a member of the Brussels-based Parliament, Marie Arena, said while the East African countries had problems with Tanzania agreeing to sign the agreement, the EU members also had a problem with Burundi being a party to the deal because of the sanctions against its leaders.

“We have a big problem with Burundi,” Arena said. “The EU Parliament has procedures to have sanctions on Burundi. It is difficult for us to vote on an agreement with countries under EU sanctions…We are not sure Tanzania will change and we are not sure Nkurunziza will change by 10 October 2016. We cannot play with the Kenyan economy.”

Kenyan exporters are likely to be hit by the unexpected consequences of the British vote to bail out of the EU. Tanzania argues it took part in the EPA negotiations since 2004 with the expectation that Britain was part of the EU. The exit of the EU, therefore, alters the equation, Tanzanian officials argue.

Audace Ndayizeye, President of the Federal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Burundi, said the EU had no “reason to exclude Burundi” from the EPA.

“We need to have a thorough analysis to resolve this issue. Tanzania has decided not to sign. The EU had not anticipated Britain could get out of the EU. This is the reason we need a thorough assessment. The EPA should be signed as a bloc. We are prepared to have further dialogue,” Ndayizeye said.

“That is politics. The EU has frozen financial aid with Burundi. They wanted dialogue to start. The dialogue has started. They have no reason to exclude Burundi. Their own businesses have not stopped doing business with Burundi. The SN Brussels (airline) is still flying to Bujumbura. They are still trading with Burundi. Business is win-win,” Ndayizeye said.

The situation in Burundi and Tanzania’s refusal to sign the trade deal has plunged the East African region’s trade diplomacy into a quagmire. The EU lawmakers proposed should the impasse persist, Kenya should consider seeking an alternative to the EPA through the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) plus, which allows developing countries access to the EU market duty-free.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has tried to resolve the impasse by sending Deputy President William Ruto to meet President Nkrunziza. However, Kenya’s foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, said the impasse would be resolved “in no-time” and an agreement would be signed before the deadline of October.

Amina said Nairobi had no immediate plans to apply for any extension of the export window to the EU.

“We are talking EPA,” Amina said.

Kenyan farmers who exported flowers worth US$650 million in 2015 are at risk of losing their tax-free access to the European market unless EPA negotiations lead to the signing of a lasting deal in Sept.

The five members of the EAC, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, have been holding negotiations on the new terms of trade to replace the current trade pact between Africa and Europe under the Cotonou agreement, which allows African states tax-free access the European market. South Sudan, which was recently admitted into the EAC, was not party to the trade negotiations.

Burundi exports 26 percent of local produce to the EU with Belgium-Luxemburg raking US$47.8 million of the US$148 million worth of Burundi’s exports in 2014 compared to US$733 million spent on imports, according to available statistics.

On 20 June, the EU Council cleared the provisional signature of the EPA between EU and the EAC. Strong opposition is growing against the move to enable Burundi to benefit from the trade agreement. The campaigners say allowing Burundi to part of the EU-EAC deal amounts to revamped economic support.


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