R. Rose
September 21, 2007

EPA count down begins

Yesterday (Thursday September 20), a panel of arbitrators of the Disputes Settlement Body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) should have completed yet another hearing on the long-drawn out banana dispute over the preferential access of Caribbean and African Producing Nations to the European market. This latest panel was triggered off by Ecuador, with support from the United States and other Latin American Countries.{{more}} It is a reminder of how important international trade agreements and decisions can be in determining the fate and livelihood of people in small countries like ours.

On Sunday, the clock starts ticking down on the deadline date set for another trade agreement. The countdown all started for the last 100 days up to the date set for the signing of an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union and Caribbean countries. In fact, next Thursday, Sept 27, marks the fifth anniversary since negotiations for these EPAs began. This has led to September 27 being declared internationally by civil society organizations as EPA day.

All around the world, in West, East, Central and Southern Africa, and in the Pacific Islands and Europe, a wide array of organizations are organizing activities to mark EPA Day. Strangely, the Caribbean is relatively quiet, as if we are not going to be affected by any EPA. Far from it, for any such trade agreement will have far-reaching implications for all our citizens. Our governments, private sector, farmers, women, youth, children will all have to face the consequences of whatever agreements our governments sign.

Shouldn’t we, therefore, at least try to find out what is it that our representatives are negotiating? What is contained in the EPA text? Is our government sharing such information with us? Is it happy or worried about the trend of the negotiations? What is it doing to defend our interests? These and a host of related questions are but logical and legitimate responses to the situation.

The long and short of it all is that not only do most of us not know the answers, but frankly speaking, most of us DON’T CARE. Well, at least not until the pinch begins to hurt. I began with the banana scenario, but it is not just about banana. It is to illustrate that if our major export has a problem, and the EPA, a supposed “partnership agreement”, refuses to find a solution, then why are we signing? Should we not ask our government to explain why is it that the Government of SVG along with its Caribbean neighbors are willing to sign the EPA? What benefits will we derive? What do we stand to lose?

Significantly, even as Governments and civil society organizations from African and Pacific countries raise objections to the content of the EPA text and question their contribution towards the development of their peoples, the European Commission, which is heading the European negotiations, is becoming more aggressive. Last week, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson was even in a threatening mood, using bullying tactics to try and paint a doomsday picture, should ACP nations not sign by the December 31 deadline. But he gave more than a hint that the Caribbean may be different and will step up to the plate, come December 31.

Who gave him such assurance? On what basis?

Caribbean people have but three months to awaken from their slumber or to get a rude awakening. This is why we, too, in the Caribbean must join in the international cry for justice and foreplay in trade agreements. Here in SVG, civil society organizations from the region will play their part in organizing activities next week to mark EPA Day. These will culminate in a massive concert at Victoria Park on the Day itself, September 27.

I invite YOU dear reader to join us as we seek answers and solutions. We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand, to retreat or to surrender.