Jamaica Gleaner | September 8, 2008
Let’s not build the EPA in the graveyard of regionalism
Norman Girvan, Contributor
The Cariforum Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) was initialled last December under extreme pressure of time and the threat of imposition of punitive tariffs on Caribbean exports in European Union (EU) markets. In the past nine months this 1,000 plus- page agreement has been examined closely, and found wanting in several respects. Every effort needs to be made to fix the problematic features before the agreement is legally cast in stone.
There is an enormous pressure to sign. The argument is that further delay will jeopardise access to European money and European markets. But it would be a grave error to sign a disadvantageous agreement, legally binding and of indefinite duration, because of promises and threats.
Funding from the European Development Fund (EDF) is part of the Cotonou Partnership Agreement, which remains in force. The European Commission is on record as affirming that the EDF is not tied to signing an EPA. Neither is ’Aid for Trade’. And the latter so far remains an elusive promise, not a binding commitment that is part of the EPA.
As for markets, recent statements by EU officials about an October 31 ’deadline’ for signing, after which tariffs will be imposed, should be seen as another transparent attempt to coerce Cariforum into signing on unfavourable terms. They are obviously aimed at influencing the outcome of the upcoming meeting of Caricom Heads on the EPA.
The other 20 ACP countries that have initialled Interim EPAs have until the end of 2008, and possibly into 2009, to conclude negotiations. On what basis, therefore, could the EU deny market access to the Caribbean if it seeks the same?
Hope over experience
Another argument employed is that we should sign now and change the contentious features afterwards. Reference is made to the EPA’s ’review’ and ’exit’ clauses; suggesting that these offer a way out.
This reminds me of the old joke about ’the triumph of hope over experience’. The track record of the European Commission Trade Directorate in the EPA negotiations gives every indication that, once there is Ministerial signature, their intention is to hold us to the letter of the agreement.
The review clauses in the EPA text relate to matters of detail, not to fundamental architecture. The exit clause simply entitles any Party to denounce the agreement in its entirety. The general provision requiring the Joint EC-Cariforum Council to "examine proposals and recommendations" involves no commitment beyond what it says. To make any changes to the agreement, Caricom will be beholden to the Europeans and the Dominican Republic; and will be bound by the procedures established by the agreement itself.
Caricom’s bargaining position is likely to be stronger before signing than after. If the EPA needs fixing, we should do it now; rather than sign in haste and repent at leisure.
Caricom leaders are to meet on Wednesday to reconcile their positions. There are two possible scenarios for the meeting. One is that the "the signers" (mostly Caricom’s MDCs) will pressure the "doubters" (Guyana and some of the OECS countries); telling them in effect: "either you come along with us, or we leave you behind, and you face the consequences".
This tactic might succeed. But it would be a Pyrrhic victory for the defenders of the EPA. It would launch the agreement in an atmosphere of dissent, disunity and distrust.
The other scenario is that the opportunity will be taken to address the serious concerns that have been raised about the EPA by several governments and by a broad swath of non-state actors. Academics, CSOs, trade unions, business organisations and church groups regionally and in Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago have called for delay and/or renegotiation. Opposition parties in Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago have taken the same position.
They are supported by several members of the European Parliament (including Glenys Kinnock, the British Labour MEP who is the EU’s co-president of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly), international NGOs, respected international think tanks, the Taubira report prepared for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, civil society organisations from several African countries engaged in similar EPA negotiations; and at least one Nobel Prize-winning economist.
Even if signed, can the EPA be successfully implemented in the face of such conspicuous lack of consensus?
There is, however, an alternative scenario for the Caricom meeting. The proposals from last Friday’s stakeholder’s consultation in Guyana could form the basis for a solution to the current deadlock.
All Caricom countries and the Dominican Republic can surely agree on a commitment to sign an EPA that satisfies the rules of the WTO, as called for by the stakeholders. This will remove whatever legal justification there may be for imposition of tariffs on Cariforum exports in the EU market.
The proposal to defer consideration of services and investment, competition and government procurement — the ’Singapore Issues’ not yet addressed in the WTO — eliminates several contentious features of the EPA: features that restrict the policy space of governments to foster local businesses, that involve onerous and costly implementation obligations, that undermine completion of the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME), and that constitute sources of divisiveness with the rest of the ACP group and with other developing countries.
The proposals, therefore, provide a basis for rebuilding Caricom unity and recommitment to the CSME; and for restoring Caricom solidarity with the remainder of the ACP. And unity of the region and of the ACP group in its relations with Europe is a sine qua non for resisting the threat of sanctions, neutralising ’divide and rule’ tactics, and negotiating an EPA that is truly supportive of development.
Wednesday’s meeting would be a major coup if it concludes with agreement on a strong and principled position to be taken to the upcoming ACP Summit in October; and if it sends a strong message to the EU that the region will not be cowed. Following on Beijing and Carifesta, such an outcome would do wonders for our collective self-confidence and sense of regional identity.
But if the meeting ends in disarray, the foundations of the EPA will have been laid in the graveyard of regionalism.
Norman Girvan, a former Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, is Professorial Research Fellow at the UWI’s Institute of International Relations in Trinidad. www.normangirvan.info.