By Lesroy W. Williams
(Basseterre, St. Kitts) – William Shakespeare in his play “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” said that the question is, “To be or not to be.”
The hot question among Caricom leaders at the present moment is “to sign or not to sign” the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that had been negotiated with the European Union.
Economic Partnership Agreements are a scheme to create a free trade area between the European Union and countries from the African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) territories. They are a response to continuing criticism that non-reciprocal and discriminating preferential trade agreements offered by the EU are incompatible with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. Due to the WTO incompatibility of previous arrangements, the EPA’s key feature is their reciprocity and non-discriminatory nature.
Some Caricom leaders are split on the EPA and seem to be reneging on their pledge to sign the agreement over concerns they have with respect to “imbalance” in the trading deal.
One major concern has been that the Caribbean region is made up of small open economies that are heavily reliant on tourism and the offshore sector to generate foreign exchange. This weighty dependence on the developed world to support Caribbean economies makes the business of negotiating economic partnership agreements an awkward business. This is so because there is an imbalance in power with the developed countries because they are the players holding the stronger hand and in a position to call the shots.
Amid such concerns, the Hon. Dr. Denzil Douglas, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, said that his government will be signing the agreement shortly.
“As the Chairman of the Cabinet we have taken the decision to sign,” Dr. Douglas said.
“We believe that if we did not sign we would be in a disadvantaged position and we signed mainly because it brings opportunities for us as a country and as a people.”
What are the opportunities that signing the EPA would bring?
“Our people would now have access to the European Market in a way that they didn’t have before and so if we are able to enter into that market and provide the necessary services, goods et cetera, then we can benefit,” Dr. Douglas stated. “What that does on the ground is to stimulate our own people to try to develop the potential to get into the specific areas that are being encouraged by the EPA by entering into the European Market.”
What are the implications of not signing the EPA?
“If we didn’t sign we would be in a way reverting to a status that is being described as a less favorable generalized system of preference scheme under which we have operated over the years and which is very, very difficult to maneuver. The country would have to go through a number of specific hurdles to get services and goods into the European Market,” the Prime Minister said.“We believe that we are doing the right thing by signing”.
Given the cold feet that some Caribbean governments are having as the time draws near to affix their signatures to the document, Barbados Prime Minister David Thompson has called for an urgent meeting of Caricom leaders because of the indecision of some of them to sign the agreement scheduled for Barbados on Sept 2.
Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, Chairman of Caricom, has called a meeting of Caricom leaders Sept. 8 to discuss the imbroglio. Mr. Spencer along with other Caricom leaders have asked that the signing be postponed from September 2 to September 8.
Barbados has given their consent to the signing of the document.
“We believe that after three to four years of intense negotiation the option of opening up that agreement to renegotiation at this stage is just not a feasible option. We doubt very much in our minds that it would be agreed to by the European Commission,” Christopher Sinckler, Barbados Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and International Business said.
Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana has indicated that Guyana is not prepared to sign over what he sees as an imbalance in Europe’s significant negotiating power which is no match for the Caribbean with its “tiny” economies.
The Hon. Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who is a staunch supporter of the EPA is prepared to sign. Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda is prepared to sign.
St. Lucia’s Prime Minister Stephenson King and the newly- elected Prime Minister of Grenada, Tillman Thomas are not ready to sign.
In Jamaica, the Bruce Golding administration supports signing, but the main opposition People’s National Party said it had serious concerns.
What will happen if some sign and some don’t?
Carl Greenidge, Deputy Senior Director of the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery said regional states that do not sign would be unable to derail the implementation of the new trade deal.
If they don’t sign they’ll be taken off the list and that country would also be excluded from any of the institutional arrangements, Mr. Greenidge said.