Debate over how much aid the European Union should give poor African countries to help them upgrade their production is at the heart of finding a new trade deal between the two regions, African officials said.

Although there are no official trade barriers for African goods into the European Union, onerous regulations, health and safety standards effectively block many of the continent’s products from the lucrative market.

Brussels’ European Development Fund will give developing countries two billion euros per year from 2010 for training, infrastructure and easier export procedures, but the African nations say they need about $28 billion to be more competitive. “We are saying that is not enough. Give us more to address this specific element of economic partnership agreements,” said Erastus Mwencha, the head of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to which most Eastern and southern African (ESA) countries belong.

The funds would be for programs such as infrastructure upgrades and generation of cheaper energy but Mwencha did not give a time frame in which it would be spent.

ESA nations and the EU need to agree on a new pact to replace an existing preferential market access deal granted to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries by Dec. 31, in order to meet World Trade Organization rules.

Kenyan trade officials said project financing and non-tariff barriers were the key hurdles to the new pact.

“Market access and development are some of the main sticky areas,” David Nalo, a senior official in the Kenyan trade ministry said during a meeting of the region’s trade officials to discuss the so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).

“The text is 70% done,” he said. “We are waiting for the European Union to engage in meaningful discussions and remove all the brackets in the text.”

Without elaboration, Mwencha said the talks would be completed in time but that some issues needed more discussion.

“I believe that it is clear that even the best of efforts and will, we cannot expect to complete all the negotiations by Dec. 31. Some issues will need to be finalized well beyond that time,” he told the trade officials.

Many of the countries in the region are classified as Least Developed Countries and will still have access to the European market should the deal not fall through.

Those that are not in that category, such as Kenya—a leading flower exporter to the EU—are pushing for a deal to be in place by the deadline so they can still trade.

The EU is also negotiating separate agreements with five other regional groups in the ACP. (Reuters)