The European Union and Cameroon signed a “stepping stone” economic partnership agreement (EPA) trade deal pending a broader regional accord with central African states.

Like similar interim deals signed with other African countries, the agreement grants Cameroon’s exports duty free, quota free access to the EU market, but gives Cameroon 15 years to dismantle tariffs on 80% of its imports from the EU.

Cameroon benefits from preferential market access for its banana exports to the EU under a separate scheme being challenged in the World Trade Organization (WTO) by Latin American growers led by Ecuador.

The EPA deals are WTO-compliant and were originally meant to be signed by the EU with six regional groups around the world before the December 2007 expiry of its Cotonou Agreement with nearly 80 African, Caribbean and Pacific former colonies.

However, talks with most of the six, especially those in Africa, dragged on longer than planned, so those countries which stood to lose most from the loss of Cotonou Agreement trade preferences made interim deals with the EU at the end of 2007.

The document effectively formalized the agreement Cameroon made with the EU in late 2007, the European Union said in a statement.

The accord was similar to one signed in November with West Africa’s Ivory Coast, a fellow cocoa and banana exporter.

Talks for a regional EPA with central African countries are some of the most delayed, but officials vowed to press ahead.

“I am strongly committed to pursuing and concluding regional negotiations in Central Africa and this agreement should be seen as a milestone on the path to the successful conclusion of a regional Economic Partnership Agreement with Central Africa,” EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

The accord binds the EU to help Cameroon become more competitive, help its exporters meet EU import standards, and improve customs procedures and its tax regime to ensure that the loss of tariffs does not destabilize Cameroon’s public finances.

EU trade with central Africa is worth some 11 billion euros ($14.46 billion) a year, the EU delegation in Yaounde said, with the African region enjoying a surplus due largely to oil exporters Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo Republic, Cameroon and Chad.

Oil accounts for 58% of the region’s exports to the EU, which also include wood, at 15%, and other agricultural products including cocoa and bananas.

The EU’s main exports to the region are medicines, vehicles and vehicle parts, equipment, cereals and milk derivatives. (Reuters)