Parliament backs free access to EU market for four African countries 

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Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Zimbabwe will get duty- and quota-free access to the EU market, under the EU's first economic partnership deal, endorsed by Parliament on Thursday, with an African region.

The Interim Economic Partnership Agreement (IEPA) with the Eastern and Southern Africa region will enable the four countries to sell their goods (most importantly coffee, sugar cane and tobacco) in the EU without paying tariffs or quotas. In return they will gradually open up their markets to EU exports over 15 years.

Parliament granted its consent to the EPA with 494 votes in favour, 97 against and 33 abstentions.

"This interim agreement, the first step towards a final one, should improve conditions and foster regional integration in the long run. The four countries fully support it, and I am confident that there was no pressure from the EU. As to Zimbabwe's human rights record, I agree that the final EPA must include a binding rule on human rights, but at this interim stage we are focusing on economic matters", said rapporteur Daniel Caspary (EPP, DE).

The EPA is intended to help integrate the four countries into the world economy, promote their sustainable development and reduce poverty. The four countries have also agreed to cooperate closely among themselves to foster regional integration.

This EPA is the first such deal actually to be implemented, as the four countries were the first to complete all the necessary steps.

It has applied provisionally since 14 May 2012, but still needs to be ratified by the four African countries and all EU member states to formally enter into force.

Zimbabwe: human rights concerns

MEPs accompanied the consent vote with a resolution stating their concerns that "certain policies present a threat to future economic relations between the Union and Zimbabwe".

They condemn abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Zimbabwe, and in particular harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and members of civil society.  MEPs fear that Zimbabwe might not be ready for such agreement and stress that the EU should never be flexible on human rights issues. Some said a binding rule on human rights should be included even at this interim stage.

MEPs call on the EU delegation in Harare to help Zimbabwe to improve its human rights record, with a view to holding peaceful and credible elections "in line with the standards the EU would expect of any of its trading partners".