Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Balls of Confusion.

I have had a very sick feeling in my stomach for a very long time. I heard about something called the EPA when I came back to the region some 20 months ago, and tried to find out what it was. I have to admit that, even though I think that I am reasonably intelligent and can understand a lot of complex issues, I was at a loss to really understand the details of the EPA. But, I have had this experience before with so-called trade agreements, and their web of arcane language. What I could understand left me with a strong feeling that the region was going to see little that could be called unequivocally gains, and probably experience what most people would feel were losses, in terms of economic activities. The nature of the EPA as I read it accepts that the region will suffer as it provides for funding to help the region's countries "adjust" (see, for example, Gleaner article on banana trade).

I had to hold back a deep throated chuckle yesterday when one of the local papers heralded September 10, 2008 on its front page as "EPA Day", as if this was a time for celebration and party. CARICOM heads of government had been convened to a special meeting in Barbados in an effort to eliminate the "dissonance of viewpoints". Many sectors of the regional public had recently started to voice loudly their concerns about the EPA. Maybe that headline was merely to warn people that the reason for traffic problems was due to a constellation of regional head of government running around the yard.

Well, let's get past the acronym, and get to think about some of the acrimony. EPA stands for Economic Partnership Agreement; not Environmental Protection Agency as many of you might have thought. In broad terms, it sets out a new arrangement for the trade in goods and services between the Caribbean region and the European Union (EU) countries. Broadly, the region's goods and services will get duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market: that's good news for our principal crops, bananas and sugar, and another major manufactured export, rum. But, my understanding is that the door will be similarly open for EU goods and services to gain access to the region, which is not good news for our other economic activities, where we are not at all competitive. The Caribbean region is odd. We rarely engage in wars that involve weapons and the loss of life, but we are often engaged in struggles with other nations that amount to war because they often involve a loss of our livelihood.

I had the experience of reviewing a draft EPA while I worked in an African country and could not for the life of me see how the potential gains for the African country would ever be realised, given its starting point as a very underdeveloped agricultural economy, with few manufactured goods and virtually no services that could compete with any of the EU countries individually or the EU collectively. But other things could come from the EPA, in the form of access to funding, and maybe that would be what might attract bureaucrats and politicians to go ahead with negotiating the agreement.

In the Caribbean region, one thing is for sure. The bureaucrats and politicians have done little or nothing to really try to explain to the populations they serve the pros and cons of the EPA. Except that is towards the end of the process, when there have been flurries of panicky attempts to "bring people on board". Like when you try to haul someone back onto a ship after he/she has fallen into the water, the body is heavy and struggles and is often hard to manage, and frequently is let go to fall back into the water and be a gift to nature.

Given that the populations were not entrusted with any real information that might bolster a particular position, it's no wonder that most people are bewildered. What is more disturbing, though, is that it seems that many of the political leaders who are entrusted with signing the agreement, do not fully understand what the agreement means, or if they do cannot lucidly explain it, or have different understandings of what it means. No wonder then, that like a couple who find themselves at the altar and doubts are still unresolved, the marriage ceremony is an awkward affair. So, it was yesterday at Barbados' splendid Sherbourne Centre. Guyana's President had adamantly said for sometime that he would not sign the agreement as it stood, and he seems to be sticking to his word, adding that his country had much to gain from EPA but that it was a bad agreement. He is not convinced that the agreement makes much sense if it includes goods AND services, given that the region has few if any services apart from tourism that we could try to trade with the EU; in any event "trade" in tourism is free. I have met and worked with President Jagdeo several times and I know he is far from a fool, and can understand many very complex issues. Haiti, too, will not sign. My understanding is that African and Pacific countries have already made a precedent for the Caribbean by initialling "goods only" agreements.

Nothing I have heard is really reassuring about what the deal will mean, and remarks such as those attributed to Jamaica's PM, Bruce Golding, that it did not represent everything that the region wanted but was the "best possible arrangement" sounds like a curate's egg: at best, good in parts and bad in others, and is really meaningless to most people. If two sides are negotiating and one is much stronger than the other, when the latter says it got the best possible, what on earth is that?

Bureaucrats who were part of the original group of negotiators, such as Sir Shridath Ramphal, the first chief negotiator and director general of the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) and former chairman of The West Indian Commission have muddied the waters by suggesting (logically) that the EPA spells the death knell of the CSME (Caribbean Single Market and Economy)--a baby that many believe is at best still-born--and also adding that the region should wait to see what position is taken by our African partners, when the ACP summit that has the EPA on its agenda is held on October 2-3 in Accra, Ghana.

There are many issues that are only surfacing in the public and political consciousness at this past-eleventh hour. One other revolves around in what state the region has come to agreement with the EU--as one or as several? My understanding, and the signing fiasco supports that, is that this is not a regional agreement on the Caribbean's part: individual countries have signed or not. We are only appearing to move under one flag when the West Indies play, and we know that is a lot of appearance and much less substance. So, who we trying to fool this time? Moving in lock step is not a natural dance for the region. If the EPA is signed, good and bad consequences will be set in train. If the EPA is not signed, from NOvember 1, different bad and good consequences will be set in train. Damned if you do; damned if you don't. Again, the knots stay tangled.

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