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We need to become better informed

We need to become better informed

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Today, Friday, April 16, 2004, Caribbean nations will formally launch the beginning of a new round of trade negotiations with the European Union (EU) according to the terms of the Cotonou Agreement, signed in 2000 by Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) nations, under the Chairmanship of our won John Horne, with the EU. Prime Ministers, Ministers of Trade, negotiators, other EU and ACP officials and representatives from civil society and the private sector, will gather in the Jamaican capital city, Kingston for the launching ceremony.{{more}}
But even as the curtain goes up on these negotiations, much of the rest of the Caribbean is going about its business blissfully unaware of the Kingston events, much less their implications for the Caribbean people. As P.J Patterson, Pascal Larry and the others give their speeches, many of us in the Caribbean will still be buzzing about Lara’s quadruple hundred, continuing celebrations to mark the end of the corrupt Bird dynasty in Antigua, weighing the pros and cons of the Trinidad-Barbados fishing dispute, not to mention the perpetual talk of crime and violence, fuelled by the regional media, the press in particular.
The Kingston launch is to kick-off the Caribbean leg of negotiations by ACP countries with the EU for what are called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). The ACP countries as a whole have already engaged the European Union in broad negotiations in the first phase of what is a two-stage process. There are differences though as to the conclusion of that phase, the ACP wanting a formal binding conclusion but the EU insisting on proceeding on a region by region basis. This regional approach gas given rise to the term, REPA, and the insinuation that as in European folklore its signal the advent of the “grim reaper”, meaning death.
This is due to the fact that many ACP countries were of the opinion that the regional approach has been adopted in order to weaken the solidarity and negotiating strength of the group as a whole. Thus the EU would be in a fat stronger position, negotiating individually with West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean. There are fears that the ACP nations are likely to get less out of the regional negotiations than they would have obtained at an all-ACP level. However these same ACP states have agreed to go ahead with the regional negotiations and to try to see what they can get out of them.
Whether the people of the region are aware of it or not, there is a lot at stake where the future of the Caribbean is concerned. First of all, our trade relations with the EU have had many advantages up to now, giving us preferential treatment in EU markets while not reciprocating or granting the same favours to EU exporters. Thus it was that bananas, sugar and rice in particular have been able to bring benefits not only to the producers of those commodities but to the regional economy as a whole.
The new negotiations are a totally new ball game. Not only is out preferential access due to end but in turn we are being asked to open our markets to EU goods and services. Competition will therefore be at both ends of the track, competition for our farmers, our manufacturers, our contractors, our skilled and trained personnel. What we negotiate will have a lot of bearing on the livelihood of all of us, from the Bahamas right down to Suriname.
Further, it is not just the EU and the EPA. We are also in the pot with the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), again requiring an opening up of our economies and markets, this time at an hemispheric level and pitting us against producers and service providers in the mighty USA, large Canada, burgeoning Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina to name a few. Any argument or concession to the EU is bound to bring demands for equal treatment under the FTAA. And all agreements arrived at must be in accordance with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.
Since the WTO negotiations are themselves incomplete, it is still a mystery as to how we are to proceed in the EPA talks.
So, cricket or no cricket, Carnival or Crop-Over, political differences notwithstanding, we are have an interest at stake in these trade talks. It is therefore so very important that we try to find out about them, to inform ourselves as to how we are and will be affected and to prepare ourselves for the rocky road ahead. It is not a popular message. (I am sure for instance that many readers would much prefer to read about NDP and ULP than about EPA and FTAA). But we have no choice.
Those of us who are lucky enough to have been exposed to some of what is going on, must take the message to those who ain’t hear, can’t hear or won’t hear. This is the role that regional civil society has been playing. Organized in the Barbados-based Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC), regional civil society leaders have been carrying out research on the implications of all these trade talks for Caribbean people, have produced documents, participated in meetings and negotiations, rendered valuable support to our governments and above all been carrying out public educational activities.
We have to keep hammering on the doors and pounding on the earbells, flashing the warning signals before the eyes, sensitizing the nostrils to the whiff of danger. Some are listening but not enough. Too many of us are still carried away by the illusion that the root of our problems are at the local level and that changing sides in Parliament, whether in Dominica, Antigua or St. Vincent and the Grenadines will in itself solve our problems. Of course it is important to have responsible and visionary leadership, accountable and transparent governments, but above all we must have enlightened people, conscious of their role and place in society and preparing themselves to face the worst if possible.
Information, education, analysis, critical thought are absolutely essential for our progress. We have no other choice if we are to survive.


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