A dilemma for negotiators

“[The Regional Negotiating Machinery acts] as though it’s an independent entity vested with different powers.” – Former President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo, January 2009. 

Recent news of a seeming deadlock in trade negotiations between Canada and CARICOM member states again raised several questions concerning the ability of our negotiators to strike deals which are in the best interest of the region.

Many would recall the ‘riot’ that erupted around the signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between CARIFORUM and the European Union, which at the time would have been negotiated by the then CARICOM Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) and the European Commission.

Among some of the EPA’s strongest critics were academics like Norman Girvan, Vaughn Lewis and Sir Shridath Ramphal as well as OXFAM, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and CARICOM Heads of State. It was Bharrat Jagdeo, the then president of Guyana who, amongst Heads of State, lambasted CRNM on multiple occasions for acting in a loose fashion and not negotiating necessarily in the best interest of the region. He stated at that time that CRNM, since it was formed by Heads of government and given a regional mandate, should be a function of the CARICOM Secretariat, reporting to the Secretary General to ensure that decisions would be approved unanimously by the CARICOM Heads. Instead, he had said, the negotiators had had access to Heads of States and “frankly speaking many heads do not have the time to read; they just bless things”, he argued, thereby giving the technical level persons a ‘free pass’ to to do some of the things they want to do.

Others countries felt that way, though not being as public with their opinions, and the CRNM was subsequently revamped, becoming a department of the Secretariat, under a new name – Office of Trade Negotiations (OTN).

Did this shift in governance redound to the benefit of the region in terms of its ability to negotiate with other teams in the global arena, particularly given the fact that the Secretariat has been challenged to persuade governments to implement many of their policies and recommendations? Or were other factors overlooked when comparing the region’s technical ability to other trade negotiating teams, namely: less collective technical trade experience, less financial backing and limited access to country statistics based on the unwillingness of both the private and public sectors of the region to provide up-to-date, comprehensive sector, agency and ministry briefs.

Negotiators then had the unenviable task of speaking with one voice at trade tables, despite having to work with divergent views coming from the various member states. Place this against the backdrop of the CARIFORUM-EU EPA being the biggest trade agreement the region would have signed following a WTO-demanded shift away from preferential trade treatment enjoyed by Caribbean and other Lesser Developed Countries under older trade regimes.

A few years on, we would have built out our technical capacity for trade policy, but our negotiators under OTN are still bound exclusively by the instructions of the Members States. There is the challenge of having to deal, for example, with some countries demanding to have a “positive list” approach to trade scheduling within the Canada-Caricom negotiations, as opposed to a “negative list” being espoused in all of the current trade negotiations going on around the world. Another example could be divergent views on how much aid for trade should be given in exchange for market access into regional markets.

Consider that we have not yet arrived at consensual intra-regional approaches, whether this is in the form of transshipment, customs and immigration, regional travel, financial regulations and the movement of skilled people and services. Our negotiators are being called on to operate at the front-end of this complex web.

Barbados Advocate