Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Guyana Stands Alone Against Europe

By Peter Ischyrion

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Sep 15 (IPS) - In the end, Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo was the stubborn holdout.

His Caribbean Community (Caricom) colleagues all but dismissed Jagdeo's call to adopt a "goods only" option with Europe rather than sign the full Economic Partnership Agreement negotiated on their behalf by the Barbados-based Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery.

Jagdeo travelled to Bridgetown last week in a last-minute bid to change the minds of his fellow Caribbean leaders, who were meeting in a special summit to discuss the trade deal after Guyana, St. Lucia and Grenada had declared they were not prepared to sign by the Sep. 2 deadline.

Prime Minister Stephenson King later told reporters that St. Lucia would participate because its concerns over a number of issues, including the sustainability of the banana industry, had been addressed. Grenada followed suit.

But Jagdeo has steadfastly maintained that the region will not benefit now nor in the future from the accord and that "the next generation will face the burden of this agreement".

Some of the core challenges to such a free trade pact, in the words of one European delegate, are "how can Caribbean products and firms avoid being swept by EU or other international competitors once these gain unhindered access to the region's market? [And] How can the Caribbean countries prevent their fiscal imbalances from worsening as import duties are slashed?"

While proponents of the EPA say it adequately addresses these questions, not all are convinced.

"The agreement has altered significantly our thinking on several issues," said Jagdeo, whose problems with the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) include the possible disintegration of the historic solidarity between the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, many of which were former European colonies and remain dependent on exports of raw commodities like sugar and rice.

Jagdeo wants the Caribbean to await the outcome of the ACP meeting in Ghana next month before agreeing to sign the EPA in its current form, a delay he believes would have allowed for better coordination with the five other African and Pacific countries that are still engaged in negotiations with Europe.

"But we sought not to do that. We are in a hurry and the hurry I think is dictated by the pace that the European Union has set," he told journalists.

The 13 Caribbean countries that have accepted the EPA plan to sign by mid-October.

But Jagdeo has made it clear that he would only sign "if Europe imposes GSP [a generalised system of preferences that involves high tariffs] on my country because I don't have a choice, my exports are vulnerable. But outside of that I will never subscribe to such an agreement."

The deputy director-general of trade at the European Commission, Karl Friedrich Falkenburg, has rejected Guyana's proposal for a goods only deal. Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who has responsibility within Caricom for external trade and is a passionate supporter of the EPA, said that the leaders had agreed that it was too late to take Jagdeo's new suggestion on board.

A goods only agreement would exclude trade in services and what some call the "Singapore Issues", areas that were dropped from the World Trade Organisation's agenda several years ago after developing countries argued that opening these areas to foreign competition would undermine local economies.

Many Caribbean academics, trade union organisations and civil society groups have also called on regional leaders to re-negotiate the accord.

Professor Dennis Pantin, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of the West Indies, said that the historic relationship between Europe and the Caribbean has been marked by a tendency to protect European economic self-interest.

He said that tendency has "been dominant throughout" and that "only a fool would assume that this self-interest... has suddenly evaporated and does not undergird this EPA."

"This can be illustrated by the fact that Europe so badly wants the Caribbean to sign, that it has threatened to otherwise remove existing preferences. This is ominous for Eastern Caribbean countries, particularly those still significantly dependent on preferential access for bananas," Pantin wrote in his weekly newspaper column.

In an open letter to Baldwin Spencer, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda and Caricom chair, dated Sep. 13, the 33-member Caribbean Conference of Churches commended Jagdeo's "intelligent and courageous stance" and expressed concern over the current EPA's "potentially detrimental impact on the wider Caribbean citizenry, particularly the most vulnerable."

Jagdeo has made it clear that he holds no grudge or ill will against his fellow Caribbean leaders over the EPA issue, but has said that the actions of the Caribbean negotiating team should be reviewed and the grouping brought under the authority of the Guyana-based Caricom Secretariat.

"The CRNM which is supposed to be a technical body has become a political entity. It was lobbying on behalf of the agreement when it should have been balanced. It should have been listening to all sides of the argument and then present technical assessments to the leaders, reviewing what was being said in Europe," Jagdeo said.

"They have become so defensive that sometimes I find it hard to distinguish between their arguments and those of the European Union," he added.

Golding insists that the CRNM did the best it could over the three-year period of negotiations with Europe.

Source: IPS News
"When you are seeking to negotiate an agreement on behalf of so many countries within Caricom, plus the Dominican Republic, and you run into this difficulty where the interests of each has to be calibrated with the interests of each of the others, it is a horrendously difficult task and it is never going to be possible to come out with a mix that full satisfies the desires of every individual country," he said.

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