ANOTHER anniversary of the signing of the CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) has come and gone, and without much fanfare as to how much progress is being made in implementing this agreement.
The EPA was signed right here in Barbados on October 15, 2008, by representatives of Caribbean member states (with the exception of Guyana and Haiti which signed at later dates) and the European Union. It offers opportunities for trade in both goods and services, and financial inflows to a region which must come to grips with the reality that the world has changed and the old ways of doing business have gone.
With nothing much having been said about the EPA, this leaves one to wonder if this is an oversight or that the agreement does not hold enough significance for those who have to gain from it, to mention it around the eighth anniversary of the signing.
Each anniversary of the EPA should be an occasion to reflect on the progress Caribbean countries are making in implementing the agreement, what will be approached in the coming year/years, and a signal about the difficulties in getting things done.
This is because of the structure of the EPA. In the area of market access for goods, both sides agreed that after ten years, according to a study by Sheldon Mclean, Errol Humphrey and J. Khadan, CARIFORUM must liberalise 61.1 per cent of EU imports; 82.7 per cent at the end of 15 years; and 86.9 per cent at the end of 25 years. They noted further that Customs Fees and Stamp taxes are also to be liberalised.
The significance of this and other liberalisations built into the agreement, is that time is slipping away and fast. What in 2008 was considered a long phased – in period to undertake the EPA, is not so long at this time.
With the passing of each year countries will find that eventually they will have to open their markets to European exports before they are ready.
As the study also shows, tariff reduction commitments on motor vehicles imported from the EU are also subject to a ten year moratorium for all CARIFORUM states, while there is also a similar moratorium on certain petroleum products with respect to Haiti.
This begs the question whether all the Caribbean countries are liberalising their taxes in accordance with the regulations, and taking advantage of some of relaxed conditions granted for certain products going into Europe.
Up to now a lot of the commentaries across the Caribbean on the EPA, do suggest the process has been quite slow.
Before departing Barbados after completing his tour of duty as Head of the EU Delegation, Ambassador Mikeal Barfod expressed disappointment at the slow pace the EPA is making in this region. He considered it a good agreement to help the Caribbean countries transform their economies in a new global trading arena. He also felt that there needs to be faster integration as regards the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) which is important for a successful EPA.
Earlier this month Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Executive Director of Caribbean Export, acknowledged that since regional exporters are not coming together it explains why our countries are not working the EPA as they should.
The decision by Europe to offer the Caribbean an EPA is based on how new economic relationships are being fashioned in a post World Trade Organisation (WTO) environment. Gone are the days when trade preferences were the preferred choices of agreements between large countries and small states.
The WTO has outlawed the previous relationships suggesting in the process that they distort international trade.
By now Barbados and the Caribbean ought to have been working the EPA. They have created Implementation Units to guide them on how to go about tackling the agreement. The sectors which have to benefit from the EPA are manufacturing, services and tourism, and even if all the templates have not been put in place to make them EPA ready, the stakeholders are fully aware of what needs to be done. Economic sectors have to be fine tuned more competitive. To date no yardstick on these processes is known.
To its credit Caribbean Export has been pioneering a lot of the key activities. It is helping local companies and entrepreneurs along with their counterparts from other parts of the Caribbean to get a better understanding of what is involved in doing business with European firms. The
companies include those in such areas as Agro-Processing, Speciality Foods, Alternative energy, the Creative industries, Financial Services, Health and Wellness, Manufacturing and Professional Services among others.
Europe has provided Caribbean Export with funds totalling in excess of 28.3 million Euros under a Regional Private Sector Development Programme to carry out those initiatives.
The EPA also provides for a process of monitoring the progress something that should be made known at each anniversary of the signing. This is an agreement with many facets to it, with less than a quarter covered in this article.
There is still a lot of work to be done and time is running out.