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Time is running out for us Pt-1

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Last week I was among participants from every CARIFORUM country, save Grenada, at a regional workshop in Barbados organized by the RNM on “Market Access in the EPA.” Before I go further, I feel fairly certain that some of our readers will be wondering why I am using these acronyms like CARIFORUM, RNM and EPA. Sometimes I wonder too how many of our people are familiar with these terms, even though they have great relevance to our lives. For the purpose of information, CARIFORUM is a term use to describe CARICOM plus the Dominica Republic, the two entities that are negotiating together with the European Union for an Economic Partnership Agreement or EPA. The RNM denotes the body set up by CARICOM to spearhead those negotiations, the Regional Negotiating Machinery.{{more}}

This may not be a “sexy” topic, to use the popular parlance of the day, but it is definitely one of great importance to us, our country and our future. For while we are consumed with petty issues and small talk, these are the kinds of issues which are crowding our policy spaces and which will be determining factors in our future. So it is vitally important that people like me who are privileged to have the opportunity to present views weekly for national consumption, attempt to bring them to the attention of the public.

This EPA, as it is commonly called, is a regional arrangement arising out of the Agreement signed in the city of Cotonou, the capital of the West African state of Benin, by former Minister of Trade, John Horne, on behalf of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the year 2000. That Cotonou Agreement as it became known, itself replaced the former and Trade agreement between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, known as Lome IV. Under Cotonou however, the ACP countries were divided into six regions (four in Africa plus the Caribbean and the Pacific) each of which is required to negotiate and sign a separate agreement with the European Union (EU) to take effect from January 1st 2008.

From the outset this idea of an EPA has proven to be a controversial one. Controversy arose first of all out of the idea of regionalization as opposed to the previous practice of the ACP negotiating as a global unit with the EU. There was a feeling that this was an attempt to weaken the ACP’s negotiating strength since each of the units, particularly the small island nations of the Caribbean and Pacific, would be in a much more disadvantaged situation.

Then there is the on-going and still unresolved issue of the nature of the Agreement itself. Would the regions be negotiating a strict free trade pact with the EU removing all trade barriers between the entities? Or should it be, as each of the six regions continues to advance strongly, an Agreement with a strong development dimension? Though in theory this development hurdle has been cleared in practice it is so clear-cut with all the regions complaining that the European side is advancing proposals which are strongly free-trade and less development-oriented in nature.

A third matter of concern is the timing. According to the timetable, the new EPA Agreements must be signed by December 31st, 2007, to come into effect next year. But, especially in the case of the Caribbean, that is a very tight schedule with such a range of complicated matters and human and material resources being scare. That was vividly brought out in the meeting held in Barbados last week. In fact it is this rigid timetable which has caused opponents of the EPA to charge that the EU is railroading small vulnerable nations into signing away their future.

The reality though is that the Cotonou Agreement is only legally acceptable within the rules of the World Trade organization (WTO) by virtue of a waiver or special dispensation. This waiver expires exactly on December 31st, 2007. For us and particularly for our banana, if the waiver expires with no new Agreement in conformity with WTO rules, the preferences we have for the entry of our products into the European Union countries would go out the window. This can have a crippling effect on our exports and our development. So unpleasant as it is, it still is in our best interests to try and secure an Agreement. But at what price? What are the implications for us and our people? We shall begin looking at some of these aspects next week.

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