Monday, October 20, 2008
Pacific Trade Ministers are meeting today in Nadi, Fiji, to discuss a free trade deal that will shape trading relations with the European Union for decades to come.Trade ministers from across the region will be deciding on a way forward in negotiations for a new Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU.
Just last week Caribbean leaders meeting in Barbados signed their own EPA with the EU amid warnings the deal could undermine development in the region.
For the past ten months Caribbean leaders have dragged their feet on signing the EPA which has been the subject of great controversy in Caribbean media and parliaments.
Academics, trade unions and civil society have called for a renegotiation of the deal to make it more 'development friendly' and the President of Guyana said he would only sign the deal if he was forced.
At the moment, only Guyana and Haiti have yet to sign the Caribbean EPA.
Pacific trade ministers, meeting today and tomorrow to discuss the Pacific's own EPA with the EU, have formally told the Europeans they are not interested in negotiating a deal that reflects the Caribbean one.
In June, the Pacific's chief trade negotiator, Hans Joachim Keil, penned a letter to the (then) EU Commissioner for Trade, Peter Mandelson, explaining that the Pacific wants an EPA containing an optional deal on goods, but does not want to negotiate on services, investment and intellectual property rights at this time.
This appeared to have been accepted by the EU.
Such a deal would satisfy the World Trade Organisation, but the EU is now demanding more from the Pacific.
During meetings held in Brussels last month, the EU refused to discuss areas of interest to the Pacific such as providing strong infant industry protection in the EPA until the Pacific agreed to begin negotiations on services and investment.
Maureen Penjueli, coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, said Pacific leaders can still avoid signing a "disastrous" deal like the EPA signed by the Caribbean.
She said it was important Pacific ministers took a sobering lesson from the Caribbean experience.
"The EPA signed last week is not about the sustainable development of small Caribbean developing countries," said Ms Penjueli.
"It contains virtually nothing for the Caribbean, but instead opens the Caribbean to European exports, businesses and service providers, and contains new rules on trade that have been rejected by developing countries at the WTO.
This deal is not a recipe for economic partnership, but a menu to serve European economic interests." Caribbean states tried to secure new access to the European market for Caribbean people to work in the EU as part of the "services" chapter in the agreement.
This was also an objective originally being sought by the Pacific, however, many in the Caribbean argue that the conditions the EU included in the Caribbean deal make it unworkable.
The Caribbean Cultural Industries Network has said that "on the face of what has been agreed Bob Marley and countless other top Caribbean artists would be 'ineligible' to work in Europe under the EPA" so restrictive are the conditions.
The Pacific has refused to negotiate on services because the EU has rejected Pacific proposals to allow more workers from the region into the EU.
But the Pacific Network on Globalisation argues that there are other reasons for the Pacific Trade Ministers to stand strong and seek a development deal.
"Negotiating a 'comprehensive EPA' such as the Caribbean's could lead to a range of problems," said Ms Penjueli.
"Such a deal would reduce Pacific countries' ability to regulate foreign investments in the public interest, could lead to an undermining of access to services (including essential services such as education and healthcare), and would restrict the ability to nurture Pacific businesses and industries.
"It would also impose a long list of expensive obligations on Pacific states."
Ms Penjueli said Pacific ACP trade ministers should defend the right to use a mixture of policy tools to promote development including the right to impose export taxes and nurture infant industries.
The EU had previously proposed that a "subgroup" of countries may wish to negotiate separately from the region, but this had been rejected by Pacific ministers.
"Pacific ministers from across the region should maintain regional solidarity and uphold the decision to suspend negotiations on services and investment," Ms Penjueli said.
"Our leaders have said before, and should always bear in mind, that it is better to walk away from a deal that undermines our development prospects than bow to EU pressure."
* Pacific ACP Trade Ministers are meeting in Nadi, Fiji, at the Novotel Hotel (October 20-21).
* The EU is negotiating with 76 nations across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (the ACP) all at once. Despite a deadline to complete negotiations before the end of 2007, most ACP nations resisted signing any kind of deal with the EU, while others have signed an interim-EPA because if they did not, Europe would have raised tariffs on their exports to the EU.
* In the Pacific, Fiji and PNG initialled interim-EPAs in late 2007 to avoid tariff hikes on tuna and sugar exports.
* The deal with the Caribbean is the first 'comprehensive' EPA the EU has managed to secure.
* Wesley Morgan is the Information, Education and Communications officer for the Pacific Network on Globalisation.