EU struggling to convince the East African Community to sign the Economic Partnership Agreement

On the verge of losing access to the lucrative export markets, the European Union (EU) said Wednesday it was prepared to consider a request for Kenyan exporters to continue exports to the EU, should the two sides fail to sign a free trade pact which has left the East African region divided.

A delegation of EU lawmakers in Nairobi to discuss the progress towards negotiations on an agreement to be signed by the five East African Community (EAC) members by October 1, 2016 to continue duty-free exports to the European market, said though Kenya had not made a formal request for an extension of the export window to the EU, an extension could be agreed upon.

“We cannot play with the Kenyan economy,” said Marie Arena, a Member of the European Parliament, visiting Nairobi with members of the EU House committee on International Trade.

Kenya is facing a disagreement with neighbouring Tanzania, which has declined to sign the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), after 12 years of negotiations, to allow both sides access to each other’s market without restrictions on the quantity of goods exported and without taxes being levied on the goods traded.

Kenyan firms exported horticultural crops worth US$658 million in 2015 to the EU countries.

Nelson Ndirangu, a top Kenyan trade diplomat, said that Kenya’s exports to the EU would remain unaffected by the decision of the British electorate to exit the EU.

“This is a market too important to lose,” Ndirangu said, explaining that despite the pending withdrawal of the UK from the EU bloc, Kenya expected trade between the two sides to continue growing.

“This is a market that takes 28% of our exports to the EU,” he added

Tanzania, a close trade partner to Kenya, has declined to sign the EPA, throwing the talks into further confusion.

The five EAC partner states have negotiated the pact as one and were expected to sign it together.

However, the EU lawmakers said they were considering declining the inclusion of Burundi on the deal because the country does not qualify for consideration due to sanctions against President Pierre Nkurunziza.

Burundi plunged into political chaos after President Nkurunziza’s third term bid evolved into communal violence.

“We are not sure Tanzania or Burundi will change,” Arena said.

The EU lawmakers said Kenya could qualify for an extension of the export window beyond October 1, if a request is made under the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) plus, which allows developing countries to access the EU market tax-free.