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Caribbean Private Sector Lags in Exploiting EU Trade Pact

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Mar 30 2012 (IPS) - When Europe signed an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the Caribbean Forum countries in 2008, the intention was to boost trade and services between the two regions.

But four years later, the Caribbean, particularly the private sector, is failing to take full advantage of many benefits of the deal, according to a new report by the Guyana-based Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat EPA Implementation Unit.

The unit just completed a review of the legal framework governing investment flows between CARIFORUM, which includes the 15-member CARICOM grouping and the Dominican Republic, and the EU to evaluate their consistency with commitments in international agreements.

“Having a better appreciation of the realities in states is crucial to making decisions to ensure that the benefits to be derived under the agreement are obtained,” said the unit’s trade in services and investment specialist, S.H. Allyson Francis.

But while some of the unit’s findings were encouraging, they were tempered by stark assessments with respect to the EPA.

“Of note, the report underscored that there is little awareness of EPA/foreign direct investment (FDI) tied advantages among the private sector in CARIFORUM states and within the EU,” the report said.

Speaking at the second CARIFORUM-EU Business Forum here on Thursday, the head of the European Union delegation to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Valeriano Diaz, said he was surprised that the private sector in the region was not yet in a position to take full advantage of the EPA.

“Let me state clearly that ownership of the EPA in the Caribbean does not belong to the European Union; it is the purview of regional governments. They have to ensure that the legislative and other frameworks are in place so that the private sector, entrepreneurs and others can reap the benefits which the EPA offers,” Diaz said.

He said the private sector also has to get on board “instead of passively standing on the sidelines.

“It is perplexing, to say the least, when I hear via the media some businesspersons lamenting that they do not know much about the EPA. We live in the information age and given the time since the signature of the agreement, this kind of defeatist attitude is difficult to understand.

“Businesspeople who are interested in penetrating extra-regional markets should be aware of what legislation needs to be in place in their countries so that they can lobby government to have such legislation enacted in a timely manner.

“They need also to know the necessary requirements which will assist them in accessing elements of the EPA, which are beneficial to their enterprise,” Diaz added.

But at least one regional private sector grouping has shown its commitment to take advantage of the accord.

The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce has just completed a two-week trade mission to Europe as a follow up to an earlier study done “to ascertain the reasons hindering the private sector from trading under the EPA”.

The study revealed that there was a deficiency in awareness of the EPA and its provisions as well as little knowledge of the EU markets. It recommended that the Chamber undertake more sector-specific trade missions to Europe with the aim of seeking strategic partnerships for the business community and obtaining market intelligence.

At the end of the Mar. 7 trade mission, the Trinidad and Tobago private sector said that initial feedback indicates “there are approximately 41 business leads with which local companies will have immediate following up, and the Chamber will take an active role in also following up with these companies so that we can measure the tangible benefits of this mission.”

It said that throughout the trade mission it promoted Trinidad and Tobago as a gateway to the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America.

“No doubt, we are quite a small economy compared to the markets that we visited and while we hold incredible natural advantages – geographic location, natural resources, climate and environment – we must continue to seek ways to enhance our competitiveness and productivity in order to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the EPA.”

Ironically, even though the EPA agreement was signed in 2008, the Trinidad and Tobago parliament has not ratified the accord. The private sector group here said it was urging the government “to push the laying of the bill on the Parliamentary agenda”.

Earlier this week, the European Union provided more than 100 million dollars to CARICOM that the regional bloc’s Secretary General Irwin La Rocque said came at a time when regional governments were determined to ensure that integration delivers tangible results to Caribbean people.

Europe is providing 8.6 million euros (11.4 million dollars) to support economic integration and trade by the sub-regional Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), as well as 28 million euro (37.2 million dollars) for the CARICOM integration process.

In addition, funds are being provided for an EPA Capacity Building Programme, intended to assist in developing capacity and allow CARIFORUM countries to take full advantage of the EPA provisions and honour their commitments.

La Rocque said that the 46.5 million euro (61.9-million-dollar) programme will provide support for fiscal reform and adjustment; for sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures and for technical barriers to trade as well as for services through Caribbean Export and for the regional rum industry through the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers Association (WIRSPA).

La Rocque said he also hoped that the proposed changes in EU development policy will not diminish traditional support provided by the EU to CARIFORUM and its member states, adding “the region looks forward to negotiating with the EU a substantial Regional Indicative Programme under the 11th EDF (European Development Fund)”.

Head of delegation of the European Union to Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Ambassador Robert Kopecký, said the funds are “a testimony of the EU’s continued commitments to support the Caribbean region in the dynamic process of regional integration and signal another milestone in the longstanding relation between the Caribbean Forum of ACP States and the European Union.

“The path to full integration is a long and dynamic process, not deprived of obstacles. The European Union was not made all at once, or according to a single plan but rather it has been built through concrete achievements which created solidarity. As such the EU has been supporting the integration steps of CARICOM along this process,” he added.

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