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Trade issues: we need to be proactive

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MINISTERS OF Trade of the CARIFORUM region, that is CARICOM plus the Dominican Republic, are meeting in St Vincent today to discuss and agree on joint action on a number of critical issues.

Their meeting, chaired by the host country, was preceded by a meeting of technical officials yesterday to provide the necessary technical input and guidance to the Ministers. A heavy agenda is before them requiring informed responses from the regional grouping.

There is the UK’s now confirmed breakaway from the European Union, dubbed as Brexit, the negotiations between the EU and the wide grouping of African, Caribbean and Pacific nations (the ACP group), and CARIFORUM’S own Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU, among other matters.

Having been around and somewhat involved, in these matters, I can safely say that they are more than a handful and mouthful, and cannot be taken lightly. My major concern is that even as officials and Ministers grapple with them, there is a lack of public interest and knowledge as to how these issues impact on our daily lives and well-being. One can comfortably predict that much more interest will be paid to relatively trivial matters than to any releases on the outcome of today’s meeting.

One can attribute this lack of interest to a lack of knowledge, particularly how such apparently “boring” matters affect us as a people. In one way or another, blame does not lie with any one source, but certainly our media, seeking to grab the headlines and popularity with sensational issues, must share the blame. One can deal with the usual day-to-day issues and still find time and space for public education, connecting Brexit for instance with the prospects for our exports to the UK.

This lack of public interest is often taken as an excuse by officials and governments for a “do it ourselves” approach.

Yet that lack of interest demands a very different, proactive attitude.

We have to find ways and means of connecting with the ordinary folk, of explaining how these matters can affect them in their day-to-day struggle for survival and how they can be used to improve our prospects.

We have to find ways to evoke interest in such trade matters and to forge a connection between them and the daily lives of our people. It may not be “sexy”, but it is a task from which we cannot shirk and if undertaken will make the lives and work of officials and Ministers alike, far more rewarding.

It calls for creativity and initiative on the part of our officials, an ability to translate highfalutin language into simple explanations dealing with the importance and impact of the issues at hand. In my view not enough of this has been attempted.

The major issues that I have highlighted all have bearing on our relations with Europe and the UK.

Yet they have implications far beyond those shores.

Britain’s exit from the EU for instance has been hanging in the balance for some time now. The comprehensive victory of Boris Johnson’s Conservative party in the December elections has made it a reality. But the UK now has not only to work out a trade agreement with the EU; it must do so with other nations as well, including the USA.

We have had long trading relations with the UK, since the time of slavery and colonialism, not always in our best interests. Today’s reality however is that given our relative small market size, we are not going to be high on the pecking order of new agreements for the British government. It has already signed a temporary roll-over agreement with the Caribbean, guaranteeing the continuation of trade arrangements as with the EU, but this is only temporary and our governments and officials cannot be complacent. We have had bitter experience of how that complacency can hurt.

The UK is to review its system of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) preferences in the first quarter of 2020. This has implications for our depleted banana trade for instance, as it does for rice exports. There are also the administrative and logistical (shipping and transport) changes which will be occasioned by the UK’s new arrangements with the EU.

We have to be on top of the ball. Will we be preparing and submitting a memorandum to the UK’s Department of International Trade on the development implications of the shift? Are we willing to reach out to and solicit the views of other Caribbean producers and to contact and co-ordinate with African producer grouping, such as Afruibana (banana exporters) to find common ground?

We cannot leave it up to the supposed “good nature” and trust of either the UK or Europe, given the narrow nationalist and selfish trends. We need to take up our beds and walk.

● Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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