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Another stab in the back

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The banana exporting countries of the Caribbean- the Windwards, Jamaica, Suriname and Belize – have been experiencing problems with the regulations governing their exports to Europe for more than 15 years now. That they have survived, in the face of an increasingly difficult situation both as regards the regime and the practical market conditions, not to talk of weaknesses in official support, is somewhat of a miracle.{{more}} The irony is that while many of our leaders and people have seemed to accept the demise of the industry as, what the French would call a “fait accompli” (established fact), it is the struggle around bananas which has alerted us to a wider threat to our economies and livelihood arising from global ‘free market’ trends.

It is the “banana wars” which exposed us to the vagaries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) which we joined in 1995 without being aware of either implications or repercussions. Banana it is, which made the acronym, WTO, virtually a household word throughout the Caribbean and made Caribbean people somewhat aware that trade rules internationally were not working in our favour. So today, those same ongoing banana battles are opening our eyes to new realities, this time concerning the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) which Caribbean governments signed with the European Union one month ago.

The voices of banana farmers, linked to those of workers, women, youth, small business persons and other sectors of civil society, helped to flush the EPA negotiations out of the secrecy in which they were clouded, into the public realm. Because of these voices of concern about our future, many persons who had never heard their governments say anything about the EPA, became aware that “something was going on”, and become interested in finding out what was really happening.

New developments in the ongoing war give every reason for heightened concern. The African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries with whom the European Union (EU) is negotiating six EPAs, have just issued a strongly-worded statement expressing their alarm over EU actions which threatens to scuttle their banana industries overnight. These supposed “partners” of the EU noted that even while the “partnership” negotiations are going on (and signed in the case of the Caribbean), the European Commission has entered into negotiations with Central American nations for a free trade agreement. Bananas are being used as a sacrificial lamb in these negotiations, the Commission apparently offering to lower the tariffs on Latin American bananas below the level at which agreement could not be reached at the WTO earlier this year. The final figure mooted, of 95 euros per tonne, would make exports from ACP countries extremely non-competitive, Fairtrade or not.

So just after forcing us to sign an EPA, ostensibly (in the words of our leaders) to “save the banana industry”, the same European Commission with whom we negotiated, is pushing the dagger in our backs. There is a precedent too. Right after the signing of the 2000 Cotonou Agreement between the EU and ACP States, the European Union unilaterally announced an “Everything But Arms” (EBA) initiative, granting duty-free access to a number of Least Developing Countries. The ACP, the Cotonou partner, had not been consulted. So for the much-vaunted partnership!

It is because of the history, the nature of the conduct of the negotiations and the actual content of the agreement, that many of us in civil society raised concerns. When we were talking of the EPA, our governments were silent, until the pressures to sign. Then we were told that we had to sign to guarantee a future for the banana industry, that the deal was the best which could be obtained etc., etc. Those of us who raised the concerns were portrayed as being anti-EPA, anti-development, not realistic and a host of other descriptions.

But Guyana balked at signing, as did Haiti and even St Lucia and Grenada initially. The latter were soon frightened into line but Guyana’s stand-off produced some results. A concern raised by some of the leading intellectuals in the region about the EPA taking precedence over CARICOM’S own Treaty of Chaguaramas, was addressed and an amendment made to ensure the paramountcy of the CARICOM treaty. Further it was agreed that a review treaty would be formally inserted into the EPA. Guyana signed upon forcing the concessions.

Now if Guyana alone could force such concessions, what else could CARICOM have achieved if it had stood firm to get a better deal? Before the concessions to Guyana, everyone of our leaders had said that the signed EPA was the “best we could get”. Guyana’s hold-out gave us all, better than that “best”. Does it not justify the exhortations of civil society for a longer hold-out and more intensive negotiations particularly in putting teeth into the development chapter? Those provisions are weak, even in official terms and there is every reason to believe that there are forces in the Commission and the EU itself, who will attempt to use the global economic crisis as an excuse to short-pitch on development funding. Hence the need for clarity and firm commitment.

Our concerns about the EPA are genuine concerns of Caribbean patriots. We want to strengthen our government’s hands in negotiations and enhance the future developmental prospects of our people. We recognize the limitations of our governments and people and the unequal nature of the relationship. That is essential if we are to make realistic appraisals. The mistakes of exclusion in the negotiation process must not be repeated in the implementation or monitoring process. We must all be aboard.

One final observation. If, as Caribbean governments assert, this long-term, binding EPA is so important to our forward march in development, if it opens all the “tremendous possibilities” that we were told, how come the signing was so low-keyed? That only two or three Heads of Government attended? And you, reader, do you know who signed on behalf of St Vincent and the Grenadines? Make a guess!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.