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EC rejects view CARIFORUM forced into EPA

Jamaica Observer, Jamaica

EC rejects view CARIFORUM forced into EPA

By Pete Sankey, Senior associate editor

28 April 2008

The European Commission (EC) has flatly rejected as unfounded, suggestions that the CARIFORUM Group - Caribbean Community (Caricom) states and the Dominican Republic - was forced into the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) reached last December and that the negotiations were designed to split the ACP Group.

Peter Hill, the member of the Cabinet with responsibility for Economic Partnership Agreements, said it was an accusation that was unavoidable, but unfounded.

He said that with six regions in the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) it would have been difficult to conduct meaningful negotiations with more than 70 countries.

However, he said that regional integration in the Caribbean has been strengthened with the EPA, and would be a plus when the CARIFORUM Group faces tougher trading partners.

Hill told journalists from ACP states attending a European Commission-sponsored seminar in Brussels, Belgium two weeks ago that since the signing of the Caribbean agreement other regions, which had initialled their EPAs, now want full agreements.

At the same time, Americao Beviglia Zampetti, one of the EC’s EPA negotiators, said the negotiations were conducted in a positive and co-operative spirit.

"There was no adversarial position on either side," he told journalists from Jamaica, Haiti, Suriname and the Dominican Republic in Brussels.

He said there were ’misplaced’ concerns by officials in the Caribbean about unexpected increase in imports and food security with the phasing out of tariffs, but there were a number of safeguards inbuilt for the Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs) like those in the Windward Islands, Haiti and Belize where duties would be phased out over time. There is a 15-year transition, he said, with up to 25 years in specific cases.

The official signing of the CARIFORUM/EC EPA is likely to be held in Bridgetown, Barbados in June this year, he said.

The CARIFORUM Group, which is among the six geographical regions negotiating with the commission, is the only one to have signed a ’full’ EPA dealing with trade in goods, liberalisation of services such as tourism, agriculture, fisheries and investment.

Meanwhile, Peter Mandelson, the EC’s trade commissioner, described the EPA reached with the CARIFORUM Group as the start of a new era, which, he said, was not accommodated by sudden rapture, shaft or shift.

"Nobody is at a disadvantage. and it was not just a question of getting right with the World Trade Organisation (WTO)," Mandelson told reporters.

Mandelson was optimistic that the EPAs already signed would help to boost intra-regional trade and manufacturing in the individual states.

The EC trade commissioner, in the meantime, told members of the European Parliament International Trade Committee that any renegotiation of the EPAs already initialled with ACP states would be a disaster.

A statement from the European Commission quoted Mandelson as saying any renegotiation would constitute "a new threat of legal uncertainty to the agreements but would also be a disaster for the ACP countries".

Full support for the CARIFORUM/EC agreement came from Federico Cuello Camillo, ambassador of the Dominican Republic and chief negotiator for services and investment, who said the full EPA signed by the Caribbean can be seen as an example.

"Market access on the basis of the Cotonou agreement was not enough," he said.

With the full EPA, the Caribbean has obtained immediate access without quotas to the European market. The EU, on its side, benefits from "asymmetric access to the Caribbean markets which will be liberalised over the longer term", said the ambassador.

However, there continues to be criticisms of the EPAs.

Jamaica’s Anthony Hylton, a former trade minister, said the greatest concern was the severe limitation on policy option by future governments implied by the 11th-hour acceptance of the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) Clause proposed by Europe, and recommended for acceptance by Prime Minister Bruce Golding in the dying moments of the negotiations.

"The MFN Clause obliges Jamaica and its CARIFORUM partners to give to Europe any more favourable treatment/benefit it gives to a third party with which it enters into a subsequent agreement," Hylton wrote in an article published in the March 30 issue of the Sunday Observer.

Oxfam, the international pressure group, has also expressed concern about the EPAs.

".If finalised, these Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) would hurt poor people and undermine development across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (ACP)," said a report released by the group this month.

Mouhamet Lamine Ndiaye, Oxfam’s Pan-Africa head of economic justice, said: "Our analysis shows that these deals have strayed far from the development template they were supposed to follow. The cost will be enormous: annual losses from tariff cuts of $360 million for Africa alone, and a further $79 billion for compliance for all the countries involved. Not to mention the loss of independent trade policy," said Ndiaye.

The group said its analysis has shown that promised transition periods for liberalisation of up to 25 years have only been offered to a few countries, for a handful of products.

"Furthermore, developing countries have been granted very limited scope to retain any protection and they have had to use it for agricultural products on which the EU still pays big trade distorting subsidies," said Oxfam.

"In a fair deal, Europe would fully open its markets to all exports without demanding reciprocation," added Ndaiye. "It would give developing countries the policy freedom to govern in the public interest and pursue regional integration on their own terms. And it would assist these countries to become more competitive, generate decent jobs and access new technologies."

Glenys Kinnock, Labour MP for Wales and a member of the European Parliament, said the strict sanitary and phytosanitary rules in Europe could put ACP states at a disadvantage and cause tension. She said, too, that negotiations with ’splintered’ groups within the ACP could be extremely damaging for regional integration.