News Americas, LONDON, England, Fri. June 24, 2011: Sometimes it seems as if officials are engaged in a game that involves having those they are most meant to help, guess about their intentions.
Last week a meeting of the EU-Cariforum Trade and Development Committee, (TDC), took place in Barbados. This is the second highest body of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) – the free trade agreement signed between the Caribbean and Europe in October 2008 – and the institution that is meant to address the detail of the implementation of the provisions of the arrangement.
As such the Trade and Development Committee brings together senior officials from both regions to resolve difficulties, advise Ministers on the outcome or, where there are differences of opinion or interpretation, indicate those matters that require political discussion.
Last week this body considered a twelve item agenda. The topics covered ranged from legal and procedural issues, through the incorporation of services commitments by the Bahamas, to matters relating to rum, tourism and cultural co-operation as well as the provision of EPA development co-operation.
Despite this and the constant emphasis by agencies around the Caribbean and in Europe on the need for the EPA to be better understood by private sector – the partner meant to deliver economic success for government – most in enterprise would be hard pressed to discover that the meeting even took place, let alone discern what happened or how it might relate to their precise and competitive world.
Notwithstanding, substantive issues were addressed. The meeting’s outcome was also in part reported to an open first joint meeting of the EPA Cariforum-EU Parliamentary Committee on June 16 and 17 in Brussels.
Why, therefore, information regarding the outcome of the TDC should only be available in the region through and opaque press release is hard to understand.
The press release states that the meeting provided an opportunity for Cariforum ‘to impress upon the EU the importance of continued support to the rum Industry in the region, and expressed concern regarding preference erosion – as it relates to agreements that the EU has concluded and those that are under negotiation – affecting rum and other products’.
To interpret: This is a reference to an issue that has the potential to end any value that the EPA may have, as it touches on every aspect of the remaining preferential arrangements that the Caribbean has with Europe.
Since the signing of the EPA, the European Commission has been negotiating free trade agreements with many nations including Central America, Andean nations, India and Mercosur. In these cases the countries export to Europe products and services that the Caribbean also produces.
Under the terms of the Cariforum EPA, the EU is meant to consult, conduct impact assessments and take into account the interests of the Caribbean when undertaking any trade negotiation that result, as these do, in the erosion of the Caribbean’s remaining preferences.
What has been happening is that European officials, sometimes from Directorates that have no relationship with or interest in the Caribbean, have been ignoring this and agreeing tariff reductions in a manner that undercut existing commitments to the Caribbean.
Of these the most worrying have been the negotiations with India, and the still to be concluded negotiations with Mercosur where Brazil’s is pressing its strategic export interests. Both threaten to remove what little advantage the Caribbean has left in Europe for value added products such as rum.
Even more opaque language appears in the release in relation to tourism.
The press statement notes: ‘With respect to the tourism Industry and cultural/creative Industries, the two sides endorsed the development of requisite modalities’.
What this particularly obscure reference means is that the language in the EPA requires there to be a regular dialogue involving these two vitally important industries that have the capacity, if developed, to sustain growth in the Caribbean economy.
In the case of tourism, the EPA’s language suggests ways the industry’s development needs might be supported and proposes a basis for dialogue involving both the public and private sector.
This item is unintentionally amusing. As the meeting was taking place in Barbados, Ministers and public and private sector representatives of the industry were in Europe trying to ensure that the region’s deep concern about the UK’s Air Passenger Duty and the inclusion of aviation in the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme were fully understood. They were also engaged in encouraging EU Governments to recognise that there needs to be a high level policy dialogue on the developmental importance of the industry.
A further example that any observer might be hard pressed to understand is the reference to the meeting welcoming the recent appointment of the Director General of Cariforum and Cariforum Coordinator, Mr. Ivan Ogando.
Mr. Ogando’s appointment makes a start on resolving the extraordinary difficulties associated with making the inter-regional aspects of the EPA work. A particular problem has been that the agreement brings together Caricom and the Dominican Republic which is not a member of the former. The post was created after a long stalemate in which the Dominican Republic Government expressed their concern about how the EPA would work equitably between signatories. Mr Ogando is able, well known and liked in Caricom and will hopefully now be able to move matters forward.
Space does not permit me to elaborate further, but why this is worth mentioning is because the EPA will never facilitate trade and development if officials use language that is impenetrable.
There is a now a view emerging in the region that there should be a moratorium on EPA implementation. There are some strong reasons for this given the weakness of many Caribbean economies and the painfully slow pace of EPA implementation.
Such messages are hardly surprising as without transparency and the full involvement of the private sector, what little advantage the agreement offers to a fragmented and weak integration process is being lost.
If the private sector in particular is not fully informed, engaged in the decision making and the discussion process, they are unlikely to respond positively or ever be able to make work what is positive in a hard to deliver agreement.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org.