YAMOUSSOUKRO — West African leaders failed to agree to open their economies to free trade with the European Union (EU) at a summit at the weekend 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 its rules into line with countries such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which have EU free-trade agreements.

While the summit endorsed an agreement in principle, some member states — in particular Nigeria — voiced concerns over technical issues, according to the final communique.

The bloc set a two-month deadline to eliminate lingering areas of disagreement.

"We need to negotiate an EPA that is beneficial to our subregion 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 subregion," he said.

Under the EPA, the EU would immediately offer the 15-member Ecowas and nonmember state Mauritania full access to its markets. In return, Ecowas would gradually open up 75% of its markets — with their 300-million consumers — to Europe over a 20-year period.

Technical negotiations wrapped up last month with the EU offering a €6.5bn package over the next five years to help Ecowas shoulder the costs of integrating into the global economy.

Ecowas consists of Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Niger and Togo.

Regional leaders were to finalise the deal at the meeting in the Ivorian capital Yamoussoukro days before a summit between African nations and the EU in Brussels.

However, according to one official who was party to the talks, Nigeria voiced lingering concern over the potential negative effect of the deal on its industrial sector if certain products were allowed tariff-free entry into its market.

But Côte d’Ivoire 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.

Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana may be able to retain tariff-free access to Europe by extending their existing agreements.