YAMOUSSOUKRO (Reuters) - West African leaders failed to agree to open their economies to free trade with the European Union at a summit on Saturday after regional heavyweight Nigeria voiced concerns, endangering a decade of talks over a deal.
Negotiations over the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) stalled two years ago after countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) resisted lifting tariff barriers over fears they could crush nascent industries unable to cope with European imports.
However, an agreement in October to gradually implement a long-delayed West African customs union put a possible deal back on track as ECOWAS agreed to bring their rules into line with countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast that have E.U. free trade deals.
While the summit endorsed an agreement in principle, some member states - in particular Nigeria - voiced concerns over technical issues, according to the final communiqué.
The bloc set a two-month deadline to eliminate lingering areas of disagreement.
"We need to negotiate an EPA that is beneficial to our sub-region and will contribute to the prosperity of our people," said Ghana's President John Mahama, who assumed the bloc's rotating chairmanship at the two-day summit.
"We can only do that united as a sub-region," he said.
Under the EPA, the European Union would immediately offer the 15-member ECOWAS and non-member state Mauritania full access to its markets. In return, ECOWAS would gradually open up 75 percent of its markets - with their 300 million consumers - to Europe over a 20-year period.
Technical negotiations wrapped up last month with the European Union offering a 6.5 billion euro (5.37 billion pounds) package over the next five years to help ECOWAS shoulder the costs of integrating into the global economy.
ECOWAS includes members Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Niger and Togo.
A WAY FORWARD?
Regional leaders were to finalise the deal at the meeting in the Ivorian capital Yamoussoukro days before a summit between African nations and the European Union in Brussels.
However, according to one official who was party to the talks, Nigeria voiced lingering concern over the potential negative impact of the deal on its industrial sector if certain products were allowed tariff-free entry into its market.
Failure to finalise a deal would have only a limited impact on most ECOWAS countries, which already benefit from full access to the E.U. market as low-income countries.
But Ivory Coast and Ghana, which send the bulk of their exports - including most of the world's cocoa - to Europe risk being hit hard as their interim bilateral deals expire.
"The deadline for the entire sub-region is October 1 and we are working towards that deadline. Our agenda is to work towards a signature, so I am confident," Jean-Louis Billon, Ivory Coast's trade minister, told Reuters.
Ivory Coast and Ghana may be able to retain tariff-free access to Europe by extending their existing agreements. However the two countries, both gateways for imports to West Africa, had hoped to use the EPA negotiation to harmonise the region's economies to foster increased integration.
The European Union, which had expressed confidence the EPA would get the green light at the summit, voiced caution.
"We have to analyse the way forward now, and they have to look at what they want," said one EU official. "There are solutions. This is now a political choice."
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Raissa Kasolowsky)