Kenya will be drifting away from the objectives of the East African Integration if it goes ahead to sign the long overdue Economic Partnership Agreement (EPAs) experts have observed.
Kenya's deputy President William Ruto last week promised to conclude the long drawn-out search for a binding pact to safeguard multi-billion shilling exports to Europe in two months.
Trade experts in Uganda have seen Kenya's deliberate move to sign EPAs in its individual capacity and not as an EAC block as a move geared towards jeopardizing the regional integration process.
Under the East African Customs Management Act, Kenya does not have direct control over the pace of trade negotiation with Europe, having bound itself to a deal that requires five member states to pursue EPAs as a bloc.
Ruto said the government would do all within its responsibility to ensure the EPAs was signed within the period to guarantee tax-free treatment of Kenyan goods in European Union countries.
"As legislators from Uganda we shall only allow to sign EPAs if we are prepared and ready to do so to the benefit of our people," said Entebbe Municipality MP Mohammed Kawuma.
Kawuma made the remarks during the Participatory Ecological Land use management (PELUM) Uganda organized National Agriculture and Trade dialogue held at Hotel Africana on Friday.
He called for fast tracking of the EAC Trade Bill.
Agnes Kirabo the PELUM Uganda Board chairperson and Coordinator Food Rights Alliance said it was pointless signing and negotiating later. "We shall not be hurried to sign as Kenya suggest. It is like snapping and focusing later. We are discussing trade, so you are either buying or selling," said Kirabo.
Bughaya MP Kasirivu Atwoki stressed the need to involve the ministry of Agriculture in the negotiations. "We are talking about opening trade especially in agriculture products with Europe but the people involved with agriculture, the Ministry technocrats are nowhere in the negotiations," said Atwoki.
Jane Nalunga the Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiation Institute (SEATINI) Uganda Country director said EPAs can only be signed as a block. "Kenya cant sign alone. We are negotiating as a block if it does then it is breaching the reasons for regional integration," she said. Nalunga noted that Kenya was pushing hard to sign EPAs because of its flower and fish exports to Europe.
"We are talking about market access, but market access doesn't necessarily mean entry. Europe still heavily subsidizes its agriculture meaning their agricultural products can't compete with the Ugandan ones," she said. She called for harmonization of polices in the region to advance issues of addressing unemployment.
Unlike Kenya which has a $1.2 billion market -mainly for flowers and fish - to lose should Europe introduce punitive taxes, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda (all classified as least developed) have strongly resisted a reciprocal deal with EU, saying it could hurt domestic industrialization.
These four states unlike Kenya are free to trade with EU on tax-free basis without having to open up their economies as required under EPAs.
Abubaker Mohammed Moki the Assistant Commissioner Economic Affairs in the Ministry of East African Affairs (MEACA) noted that under EPAs products from the region would have duty free access to European markets.
But in the heated meeting MPs and civil society groups have warned governments to tread carefully in the pursuit of EPAs to ensure it does not hurt domestic industry and turn the region into dumping ground.
The European Commission and Parliament have since threatened to reintroduce punitive taxes on goods from countries that will not have concluded the EPAs talks by October 2014.
Emmanuel Mutahunga the Senior Principal Commercial Officer in the Ministry of Trade said EPAs is not meant to solve all trade related challenges. "If we don't make a decision we shall spear the tail and be left with nothing. Let's go by what we want and leave what we don't want. Where there is no consensus we shall take the extreme end," said Mutuhunga.