The UK and Cameroon signed an Economic Partnership Agreement (UK-Cameroon EPA) on 9 March 2021. It was presented to Parliament in April 2021. The Government has stated that it has developed new agreements that “replicate, as far as possible, the effects of the EU’s trade arrangements with third countries” as they applied to the UK prior to the end of the transition period. Therefore, the UK-Cameroon EPA seeks to maintain the effects of the precursor agreement, the EU-Central Africa iEPA, “by replicating it with minor amendments”. Although the EU-Central Africa iEPA was negotiated between the EU and the Central African region, Cameroon remains the only African signatory (2003) to the interim agreement to date.
The UK-Cameroon EPA did not enter into force from 1 January 2021. Instead, it is being provisionally applied, pending the completion of domestic ratification procedures. To bridge the gap between the end of the post-Brexit transition period and provisional application, both the UK and Cameroon had committed, through a Memorandum of Understanding, to maintain the effects of the EU-Central Africa iEPA from 1 January 2021, and apply the tariff preferences from the UK-Cameroon EPA.
UK-Cameroon Economic Partnership Agreement
The UK-Cameroon EPA would govern the UK’s future trading relationship with Cameroon. In May 2021, the Department for International Trade updated its guidance for UK businesses trading with Cameroon to provide information on aspects of trade covered by the agreement. This included a commitment by the UK to provide “immediate duty-free, quota-free access” to goods exported from Cameroon (other than arms and ammunition). In exchange, Cameroon would commit to a “gradual tariff liberalisation of goods”. However, some “domestically sensitive products” in Cameroon would be excluded from tariff liberalisation.
The EPA also includes provisions on:
- trade in goods, including provisions on preferential tariffs, customs and rules of origin;
- sanitary and phytosanitary measures;
- technical barriers to trade; and
- trade remedies.
Alongside the UK-Cameroon EPA, the Government has published several documents:
- Explanatory memorandum: This includes information on the content of the agreement and policy considerations. In the explanatory memorandum, the Government states that given that Cameroon was the only Central African country to sign and ratify the EU-Central Africa iEPA, the Government concluded that “replicating the intended effects of this agreement” was the “best way to ensure continuity of trade with Cameroon”. The explanatory memorandum also notes that the Government had consulted the governments of the Crown Dependencies and Gibraltar on the progress of the agreement and was working closely with those territories to ensure any legislative measures necessary to implement the agreement are “enacted prior to its entry into force”.
- Memorandum of understanding: This sets out the arrangements for provisionally applying the effects of the UK-Cameroon EPA from 1 January 2021. In the memorandum of understanding, both countries recognised that the “necessary domestic procedures required” for the EPA to enter into effect “will not have been completed”.
- Report to Parliament by the Department for International Trade: This report details and explains the reasons for any significant differences between the UK-Cameroon EPA and the EU-Central Africa iEPA. This included the removal and replacement of references to the EU and EU treaties in the UK-Cameroon EPA. The report also discusses the changes made to the trading arrangements between the UK and Cameroon as a result of moving from the EU-Central Africa iEPA to the new agreement.
The UK-Cameroon EPA has faced scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament, with concern expressed by a number of committees and Members of Parliament over human rights abuses in Cameroon, and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny that the agreement has had to date.
House of Commons International Trade Committee
On 13 May 2021, the chair of the House of Commons International Trade Committee, Angus Brendan Macneil, wrote to the Government asking what consideration it had given to withdrawing trade preferences from Cameroon due to human rights abuses in the country. In the letter to the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, Mr Macneil also requested that the Department for International Trade set out its approach to determining when and how it might invoke similar provisions in its other continuity agreements with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. The Government has yet to respond.
House of Lords International Agreements Committee
The House of Lords International Agreements Committee considered the UK-Cameroon EPA on 26 May 2021. In its report, the committee raised several concerns, such as human rights. It stated that the agreement includes provisions on human rights, which are classed as an “essential element” of the agreement and that in the case of a “material breach”, the agreement may be suspended. Discussing the current conflict between Anglophone separatists and government forces in Cameroon, which has “fuelled serious human rights abuses on both sides”, the committee noted that in January 2020, the US terminated Cameroon’s trade preferences under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Therefore, the committee called for the human rights situation in the country to be “kept under review” by the Government. In addition, the committee sought clarity from the Government on its plans to monitor human rights compliance, including where allegations of human rights violations could put Cameroon in “material breach” of the agreement.
The committee also noted that the explanatory memorandum had revealed that the Government had consulted the devolved administrations, the Crown Dependencies and Gibraltar on the EPA. However, it called on the Government to include in its explanatory memorandum information regarding any “significant issues of concern” raised by the devolved administrations and others and how those concerns had been addressed or to confirm that no significant concerns had been raised.
Debate in the House of Commons
Moving the debate, Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, raised concerns with the UK-Cameroon EPA. This included concerns over human rights abuses in Cameroon. During the debate, Ms Olney argued that a “massive opportunity” had been missed for the Government to address the issue of human rights in Cameroon through the trade deal. She also stated that unlike for new trade agreements, the Department for International Trade had not published scoping assessments, “or any detail”, about the effect of such agreements on human rights, the environment or international development. As a result, she was “anxious” as to whether agreements such as the UK-Cameroon EPA were “aligned with the UK’s broader human rights, women’s rights and environmental commitments”. Ms Olney also criticised the lack of scrutiny of the agreement, stating that there was “no ongoing scrutiny” for MPs and that MPs “have no guaranteed vote or debate” on the final agreement.
Responding, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for International Trade, Graham Stuart, said that the agreements were “excellent news” and would “provide a huge boost, encouraging export-led growth as well as supporting and creating jobs in Ghana and Cameroon”. Addressing concerns surrounding human rights abuses in Cameroon, Mr Stuart stated that the Government would “continue to call for inclusive dialogue and an end to fighting in the north-west and south-west region” through direct conversations with the Government of Cameroon and international bodies. Turning to concerns that Parliament had not been able to scrutinise the EPA, Mr Stuart said that Parliament had “already had the opportunity to scrutinise existing EU agreements” and that as with all continuity agreements, the Government had followed the statutory process of laying agreements under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The minister also stated that the Government had gone “well beyond” the statutory requirements of the 2010 act by providing “comprehensive information” to Parliament.
Before the UK-Cameron EPA can enter into force, it must be ratified by both countries. Under the 2010 act, a treaty must be laid before Parliament before ratification. Once a treaty is laid before Parliament, both Houses have 21 sitting days to review and object, should they wish, to the treaty. If within the 21 sitting days, either House passes a motion against ratification, the Government must lay a statement before Parliament explaining its justification for ratifying the treaty. If the House of Commons passes a motion against ratification, another 21-day period is triggered. In theory, this process could delay ratification indefinitely, with the passing of further motions. The House of Lords does not have the power to keep delaying ratification.
The Government laid the UK-Cameroon EPA before Parliament on 20 April 2021. The objection period ended on 10 June 2021.
On 29 June 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate a regret motion by Lord Grantchester (Labour) on the UK-Cameroon EPA. Should the House agree to the regret motion, this would not prevent the treaty from being ratified.
- Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Cameroon Economic Factsheet, updated 29 April 2021
- Department for International Trade, ‘UK and Cameroon sign trade agreement’, 9 March 2021
Cover image from Freepik