logo logo

Trade: Pacific on ‘word watch’, but time is running out

Islands Business

Trade: Pacific On ‘Word Watch’, But Time Is Running Out

But islanders say they’ll be ready by Dec 31

By Samisoni Pareti

June 2007

With only six months left for the African, Caribbean and Pacific bloc of states to have its economic partnership agreement with the European Union negotiated, sealed and signed, the 14 Pacific members of the alliance are more worried about word usage.

“We are very careful about words,” Peter Forau, co-deputy secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, told journalists at the end of the Pacific trade ministers meeting in Fiji last month.

“We’ve stayed away from using the word ‘fast-tracking’. Instead, we are using intensifying, meaning we are capitalising on the resources we have available to us including the engagement of our ambassadors in Brussels to help the technical working group in their discussions with the EU on a range of issues the ministers have referred to.

“As well, we have outlined a way forward which will be part of the outcomes of this meeting.

“That way forward includes a range of meetings that will be happening from hereon including one more, possibly a mission by ministers to Brussels, as well as a number of officials meetings that will be held after this.”

Forau might not like “fast-tracking,” but the word still appeared in the media statement his secretariat released after the Nadi meeting.

While “officials from PACPS (Pacific ACP states) should intensify their substantive involvement in the EPA negotiations,” the statement also spoke about delegates requesting “a way forward to be identified to fast-track the EPA process to meet the looming deadline to conclude the negotiations”.

Following their meeting last month, Pacific trade ministers of the ACP were confident they would have an EPA with Europe “up and running” by December 31, that no thoughts-despite suggestions by some experts-had been made on a Plan B, should there be no agreement in place by the deadline.

Preferential access: This is in spite of a decision taken by ACP sugar ministers that met in Nadi two weeks before them whereby the ACP would push for the maintenance of preferential access to the EU markets in the event the introduction of EPAs was deferred.”

“That is our aim and both the commissioners in the EU and the (Pacific) ministers aim to have the negotiations concluded by the end of the year,” Hans Joachim Keil, Samoa’s associate trade minister and the Pacific’s lead negotiator with Europe told ISLANDS BUSINESS.

When asked why the region is not even considering a “transitional strategy” if negotiations run out of time, Keil reiterated their position.

“No, it wasn’t discussed because it also involves the African and Caribbean regions and that’s our aim and that’s what we want to do.”

Dr James Gosselin, senior adviser to the Pacific’s EPA negotiation, said meeting the deadline was the mutual desire of both parties.

This, he said, was agreed upon when Keil and his negotiation group met EC senior officials in Brussels early in the year. That visit was organised following concerns expressed by Pacific members of the ACP last year that the EC seemed to be dragging its feet on meeting the December deadline.

“When Keil and other ministers met with Commissioners Mandelson and Mitchell on March 1, it was agreed both sides will work diligently to conclude the negotiations by the end of December this year,” said Gosselin.

“And the strategy we have adopted as the deputy secretary-general has said, is to intensify the negotiations.

“We will be spending an awful lot of time in Brussels holding meetings there, holding meetings here, briefing the ministers, getting further instructions from the ministers for negotiations at the technical level.

“In any trade negotiations, the negotiations take place at two levels; at the technical level where they work on the detail aspects of the rules of origin and so on; and at the ministerial level where they work on policy matters.

“So we will be seeking instruction and guidance from the ministers with the very detailed aspects of the negotiations. It may well be the case that in the coming months, there will be roadblocks, there will be differences in policies, the ministers will then have to step in and meet with their counterparts in the EU and overcome the roadblocks so we could move forward.

“So much of the region’s attention now over the next six months will be focusing on all these negotiations so that we can conclude the negotiations by the end of the year.”

So what has the trade ministers resolved as the region and Europe enter the final phase of their EPA negotiations? That, of course, would be what the EC would want to know and the Pacific negotiating team-at both the ministerial and officials’ level-would not disclose just yet. The Forum Secretariat post-meeting statement did say that the Nadi meeting was to adopt “the minimum requirements” for any EPA with Europe. In other words, trade ministers set the perimeter on their line of negotiations with the EC, on what they can compromise on and what they can’t. The Nadi meeting statement did not reveal much.

“The meeting agreed that market access under the EPA would only be beneficial if accompanied by improved rules of origin that recognised the smallness and isolation of PACPS,” said the Forum statement.

“Sanitary and phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade were also highlighted as important part of market access and a sufficient transition period be built into the EPA to enable Pacific ACP states to prepare and implement the new trade agreements under EPA.”

The only other issue the Pacific was able to comment on was Mode Four-officials speak for labour mobility. The Pacific-according to Keil-would strive to have labour mobility included under services in its EPA with Europe.

“We don’t use the word emigration or migration because that puts up a barrier immediately. But we want to open up job opportunities for our people.

“We are asking for three years and these are not unskilled workers, we want semi-skilled at the moment. That includes care givers, hospital workers, construction workers, rugby players, security officers, hospitality workers.

“These are people who will go up there to better their skills and then come back to use those skills in developing our countries.

“Hopefully, it will be approved and as the years go by, we will include doctors and other professionals. At the moment we’ve got seafarers from the Pacific who are employed all over the world.

“It’s open but you just have to go through the proper channels and that’s the proper way of doing it because there’s nothing that irks a country more than to find people who are living there that shouldn’t be there, and we see that with our very close neighbours to the south.”

Mode Four-diplomats close to the negotiations told this magazine-has already been raised with not only the EC officials but senior government officials in at least two EU member countries.

The reception was warm, these diplomats said, especially from London and Dublin. With the Pacific opting for temporary job contracts for semi-skilled and professionals like doctors or accountants, the perception is that the islands of the Pacific would be hard-pressed to fill an annual quota of even 200 to 300.

Keil and his team are not dropping any clues on their position on fisheries. The EU’s preference to pursue bilateral agreements not a multilateral on any fisheries agreement with the Pacific was a sticky point early on in the negotiations.

Persistent calls by experts like Oxfam that the islands would be better served if they opted for an enhanced general system of preferences or something similar to EBA (Everything but Arms) had been ignored by the trade ministers. But they are now determined to “intensify” and push hard for an EPA by the end of the year.