The UK-based international development agency Christian Aid is among those urging Caribbean heads of government to refuse to sign a new trade deal that the European Union (EU) is attempting to force onto the region.
Caribbean leaders meeting in Barbados on Wednesday 10 September 2008 should insist that the deal, an economic partnership agreement (EPA), is renegotiated to safeguard their countries interests, says the church-backed agency - which works for a fiar deal for the world's poor, irrespective of belief.
Christian Aid says it believes that measures to help developing countries prosper must be at the core of any serious trade agreement and that what is currently on offer does not match the bill.
The EU has persistently maintained that the EPA is development focused, and will support economic growth. Christian Aid and its partners on the ground, however, say that in its present form, the EPA would have a potentially devastating effect on the region’s more vulnerable economies.
"What is most worrying is that the supposed focus on development seems to have been complete lost in the negotiation process," says Judith Turbyne, head of Christian Aid’s Caribbean office.
She continues: "Far from being a key concern it actually appears to have been, at the very least, a marginal issue for negotiators on both sides. What is this going to mean for farmers? What is this going to mean for women and children? What is this going to mean for the poorest sectors in Caribbean society?"
"The fact that there are no clear development benchmarks integrated into the agreements seems to indicate that the powerful partner in this relationship is much less concerned with development than with furthering its own interests. It is the relationship of the bully to the bullied -not that of equal partners in a responsible and fruitful relationship," adds Ms Turbyne.
Opposition to the EPA has grown steadily since it was initialled by the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) last December following EU threats that refusal to co-operate would lead to cuts in aid, and stiff tariffs for countries wanting to access European markets.
There have been demonstrations in several countries and full signing of the agreement, which the EU is now seeking, is opposed by Guyana and a number of smaller islands, as well as civil society organisations, trade unions and church groups throughout the Caribbean.
Ostensibly designed to open up trade between Caribbean and European countries, there are fears that European producers and service providers will flood the region and force local competitors out of business.
Issues of particular concern, says Christian Aid, include:
• Caribbean governments will be restricted from defending national and regional producers against unfair competition from bigger and more aggressive European firms. The EPA contains no provision for the elimination of EU export subsidies or the reduction of other forms of EU agricultural subsidy. Subsidised EU products will be dumped on Caribbean markets as already happens in West and Central Africa with poultry, onions, tomato paste and wheat based products. Meanwhile, the initialled EPA prohibits Caribbean countries from applying any new subsidies to exports of their agricultural products.
• The initialled EPA commits Caribbean countries to liberalise up to 75 percent of their services sector including areas such as telecommunications, banking, health, education, sanitation, tourism, and retailing. They will have to treat local and European providers the same, resulting in governments being severely restricted in their ability to ensure universal access, availability and affordability to its people. The European Commission on the other hand has limited the possibility of any Caribbean service providers entering Europe through a series of complex regulations.
• Caribbean countries will not be given anything like the time they need to gradually remove protective import tariffs. Import tariffs are often a much needed source of revenue for poorer countries and an important tool in protecting sensitive local industries, and help diversify economies. The initialled EPA imposes tariff cuts in many sectors, including those which are particularly vulnerable. These include primary commodities such as unprocessed agricultural produce, and infant industries.
• Development benchmarks should be included in the text of the document prior to any agreement and not just introduced as part of the monitoring arrangements. This would make them part of the legally binding process.
Although larger countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Dominica are in favour of signing, President Bharat Jagdeo of Guyana, Prime Minister Stephenson King of St. Lucia's, and newly elected Prime Minister Tillman Thomas of Grenada, have unequivocally voiced their opposition.
"Based on the advice we have been receiving from several quarters, as members of the Caribbean Community, we are now in a better position to say let us slow down a minute and engage in a further review of the real value of the EPA to the region," explained Prime Minister Stephenson King.
With the EU also pressing countries in Africa and the Pacific to accept similar deals, EPAs have also come under attack from a number of leading economists, academics and former diplomats. They include Nobel Laureate (economic sciences) Joseph Stiglitz, former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal, and Norman Girvan, the former Secretary-General of the Association of Caribbean States.
Earlier this year, when France took over the EU’s presidency, French president Nicolas Sarkozy asked French National Assembly member Christiane Taubira to examine how confidence in EPAs could be restored.
Her subsequent report, which has yet to be officially published, criticised ‘the tactics – pressure, paternalism and threats – employed by the (European) Commission to impose its points of view and its interests.’
She urged that the ‘the basis for the negotiations should be rethought so that there is greater emphasis on social and economic development’.
Although her report largely focused on Africa, EPA opponents in the Caribbean say the criticisms apply equally to the negotiations carried out in their part of the world.
Three years ago the UK Government raised major objections to the way in which the European Commission was pursuing such agreements but then did little to rein in its behaviour.
As a result, EU mercantilist interests have replaced development aspirations and objectives. Christian Aid says that in order to redeem itself, the UK government must now show leadership in demanding a fundamental review of the deals under discussion. As they stand, poor countries will simply get poorer.