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Split-offs emerging in EPA negotiations

Jamaica Gleaner, Jamaica

Split-offs emerging in EPA negotiations

David Jessop, Contributor

25 November 2007

Being able to see though the fog of war and to think forward to a future beyond, is what sets apart great statesmen and women.

In the period immediately after World War II, the vision of those in charge of Europe and those who were to become the makers of the modern Caribbean, enabled change in the relationship to take place gradually, with a certainty, based on shared values and despite differences.

There was among rich and poor nations in the West a common desire for economic growth in a manner that encouraged the more even distribution of wealth, social justice and an acceptance of greater equity between democratic nations.

Special relationship departing

It was based on a common social philosophy that strengthened the mutual dependence between Europe and its former colonies during the Cold War and created lasting depth in the region’s international relationships with nations such as the United Kingdom.

In the next few weeks, Europe will demonstrate that this period of history is at an end and almost all that has been special in the relationship is closing.

While the detail of the negotiations between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of nations (the ACP) is prosaic, not well understood, and its implications lost in the spin, hectoring and mercantilist language of Europe’s unelected commissioners, something much more important is happening: The soul and substance of a special relationship is departing.

Europe through EPAs and trade is levelling its relationship so that it can focus on obtaining advantage in its relations with Brazil, India and other large developing nations while the U.S. sleeps its way through 12 months of presidential campaigning.

The detailed outcomes of the EPA negotiations will become apparent in years to come as a number of small nations, bruised from the negotiations, are pushed to margins of the world economy.

But what seems not to have dawned in the foreign ministries of European governments is that the EPA process and its outcome are re-engineering international relationships in a way never intended when they gave the European bureaucracy a negotiating mandate for a new trade and development relationship.

To understand this look at the geo-political effect of what the EPA process is doing to the ACP; a group admittedly in recent years of less practical utility and in which process has often eclipsed substance; but a group that represents the authentic voice of almost all of the world’s smaller developing nations, with the moral authority of its collective history.

The EPAs, constructions of Europe, are having the effect of breaking ACP coherence not just at an international level but at a regional level.

In an approach unique in international trade negotiations, the European Commission has spent the last few weeks suborning those states and groups that do not wish to be disadvantaged by the imposition of Europe’s GSP tariff regime to enter into arrangements alone, or as new groupings.

They are doing so on the basis that regional neighbours can then join at any time but seemingly regardless of the longer-term implications.

Back to the drawing board

It is almost as if those who drew straight and artificial lines on the map of Africa have returned to the drawing board to reorder the interrelationships between sovereign nations.

The Cote d’Ivoire is understood to be negotiating a separate EPA; Mauritius, the Seychelles, Madagascar and the Comoros are building their own subregional EPA; the regions of West and Central Africa have not put forward market access offers so are likely to be levelled to the GSP; South Africa and Nigeria will not sign an EPA; while other regions are in turmoil with EPA-induced tensions that cross established boundaries.

In the Caribbean, if negotiations are not completed on time, the nascent relationship between CARICOM and the Dominican Republic will falter, causing difficult-to-resolve problems about the percentage coverage of trade in goods in the Caribbean EPA. With genuine reluctance, the Dominican Republic has spent much of the last week engaged in dialogue with Europe about a stand-alone EPA or trade-in-goods arrangement knowing that it would be domestic, economic and political suicide to have to accept a GSP arrangement with Europe. Separately, the Bahamas Prime Minister has written to the EC trade commissioner, notifying him that he will seek an interim trade-in-goods arrangement because Nassau’s new government is concerned about its ability to agree a services offer.

Europe would, of course, say that the world must move on; argue with some justification that certain states have been misled by NGOs; note that its proposals are only seeking compliance with WTO rules; and that the fault lies with the slow response of the groupings of the ACP.

But this does not amount to a historic vision or to a longer-term understanding of the consequences for partnership. Rather, it smacks of a step along a road of economic self-interest.

In all of this the Caribbean’s position is clear. At a recent meeting of Cariforum trade ministers and a subsequent Bureau of Heads of Government, it was resolved to continue negotiating in good faith with the objective of concluding ’a complete and satisfactory agreement’.

It was accepted that if this is not possible by the end of 2007, the region will continue with the aim of completion in early 2008. They also concluded that if, after the next meeting, scheduled for later this month, no agreement is possible and the EU insists on introducing the GSP, they would take their views to the highest political levels in Europe.

They were unanimous in their position that none of th to a fully negotiated EPA was acceptable.

In doing so, they implicitly accepted the view of the region’s leading statesman, Sir Shridath Ramphal, that a bad agreement with the EU would be worse than no agreement "as a bad agreement is forever".

Senior figures close to the negotiations have made clear in private that politically, there is only so far that the region can go. If Europe expects to achieve an agreement with the Caribbean it will they say have to show greater flexibility over a range of outstanding issues.

But this is not a column about the detail; it is to suggest that the closing days of the EPA negotiations demonstrate the utterly changed approach in Europe towards the Caribbean and the rest of the ACP

Trying to explain this transformation in European thinking, a very senior figure from the region suggested to me that this was because many of those negotiating were fundamentalists.

They feel, he said, it is their calling to reorder the world through free trade. This, in their view, equates to development that will rebound to the benefit of all.

The response to this has yet to be seen, but I suspect the EPA negotiating process will have long-term consequences on the collective thinking of the Caribbean and will accelerate the movement to reorient relationships and thinking away from Europe and North America towards nations like China and India, and the region’s oil rich neighbours.

David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council.