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Straker admits governments pressured

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I am neither surprised, shocked nor indeed “flabbergasted” (as one colleague expressed it to me), by the recent statement of Vincentian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign affairs and Foreign Trade, Sir Louis Straker, on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) signed in December 2009 by the European Union (EU) and Caribbean governments.

The EPA is an attempt by the European Union to reshape its trade arrangements with former colonies under the umbrella of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) grouping. Fundamentally, it changed the nature of the trade arrangements{{more}} between the two groupings from one where generous trade preferences were offered to ACP exports to Europe, to one where concessions made on one side must be matched by the other, a concept known as reciprocity.

The EPA negotiations have been surrounded by controversy from Day 1, with charges that the agreements are part of the EU global trade strategy, aimed more at enhancing its own position than bringing lasting benefits to ACP countries. A global movement to “Stop the EPA” sprung up and to date only the Caribbean EPA is in operation, many countries in Africa and the Pacific refusing to sign.

In the end, the Caribbean pact was signed by governments faced with mounting opposition and concerns by civil society groups and leading regional intellectuals. Faced with this situation, the eventual EPA contained what is described as a “development dimension”. It aims “to promote trade, sustainable development, poverty eradication and to foster regional integration” and is the most important such agreement ever signed by Caribbean states.

There are still substantial reservations among Caribbean people and governments about the EPA. This was dramatically highlighted earlier this week by Sir Louis at the 103rd meeting of the ACP Council of Ministers, held in Dakar, Senegal. According to Vincentian journalist Kenton Chance, Straker made the bold admission to a Ghanaian journalist that Caribbean countries had been “pressured into signing” the EPA.

“We had no choice. The EU held a gun to our heads and said you must sign”, the Vincentian Deputy PM is reported as saying. The report went on to state that Sir Louis amplified his remarks by saying that, essentially, the EU had said that if the Caribbean did not sign, (there was reluctance to do so, causing the signing to be one year after schedule), it would shift its focus to Africa, many times more valuable as a trading partner.

Asked if given a second chance, what would he do, the Vincentian Minister said that his government would reconsider the decision, claiming that the EPA would be more helpful “if we could get more in terms of services” and calling for “a lot of technical assistance” in facilitating trade in that area.

Sir Louis’ frank comments are typical of his straight-talking nature. In December 2002, he played a major role in a controversy which forced the cancellation of a planned meeting of the ACP/EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly in Brussels. Then, Straker had led ACP objections to the EU’s attempt to exclude the Zimbabwean delegation from the meeting, on the grounds of human rights violations by the Mugabe government. When no agreement could be reached, the meeting had to be abandoned.

His is a blunt admission by a high-ranking government official in the region that the EPA is not delivering as it had promised. It also makes me, and many others involved in the campaigns around the EPA negotiations, feel justified. Up until today, the EU is still threatening African and Pacific nations that if they don’t sign by October 1 this year, their duty-free, quota-free (DFQF in official talk), would come to an end.

That was the same argument advanced to Caribbean governments and people in order to coerce our governments to sign. We were in a vulnerable situation, especially the banana exporting countries like the Windward Islands, Jamaica, Belize and Suriname. Our governments, reluctant at first, finally caved in and justified their signing by saying that it would “save our banana industry”. That has clearly not happened and though there are aspects of the EPA which can be of benefit to the region, seven years after signing, even an official review has been unable to clearly quantify the benefits or to point to any positive impact of the EPA on the lives of the people of the region.

I will amplify this in a subsequent column.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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