“Canada-CARICOM Trade Talks Shrouded in Doubt” By Sir Ronald Sanders
Negotiations on a trade agreement between Canada and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries have limped along for over five years. Unless political will and energy is now put into the process, the negotiations could fizzle out by the end of June – a ‘drop-dead’ date now accepted by both sides.
Abandonment of these negotiations would not be good for Canada and certainly not for CARICOM countries. For, while the negotiations focus on trade and investment and rules that guide them, the relationship between Canada and CARICOM goes far beyond these considerations.
From a CARICOM viewpoint, Canada should remain a crucially important hemispheric, Commonwealth and international partner. Canada is the third largest market for exports of goods from CARICOM after the United States (over 50%) and the European Union (about 12%). And, although Canada represents only 4% of CARICOM’s market for the export of goods, it is the only developed country with which CARICOM enjoys a trade surplus. Additionally, Canada is home to a significant number of CARICOM’s diaspora; it is a major source of tourists to the region; and Canadian private sector investment in the region in a variety of industries, including banking, tourism and mining, is huge – direct investment is in excess of US$75 billion, and trade in services is roughly US$3 billion annually. Additionally, Canada is a significant aid contributor to CARICOM countries. In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged US$600 million to CARICOM countries (except Haiti which attracts specific funding), about two-thirds of which has been allocated over the last six years.
To be fair to Canada, successive Liberal and Conservative governments tried for years to engage CARICOM in settling a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), but it was not until 2008 that the Caribbean governments agreed to engage Canada and then only when the CARIB-CAN agreement (established in 1986) was approaching its scheduled expiration in 2011. Under the CARIB-CAN arrangement, CARICOM goods, with a few exceptions, entered the Canadian market duty-free with no reciprocal benefits for Canadian exports to CARICOM. The dilatory pace of the negotiations saw the CARIB-CAN Agreement run out and Canada had to apply to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to extend it until 2013 in the interest of CARICOM states. That extension has now expired and the WTO is unlikely to further extend it even if Canada were minded to seek another extension. In this connection, access to the Canadian market for CARICOM goods (with the possible exception of rum which is governed by a separate Protocol) is now endangered.
In their present economic circumstances, CARICOM countries need a continuing and structured relationship with Canada that governs trade and investment. They also need an improved relationship with Canada all round. This is why the political leadership of CARICOM should provide their negotiators with a more flexible mandate than they now have. For example, CARICOM countries are said to be resisting co-operation agreements that Canada is seeking on labour and environmental standards, but these are the same standards to which CARICOM countries have already signed on with the EU in their Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). Since the standards will have to be met anyway, the reason for the resistance is difficult to fathom.
Canada also wants a chapter in the FTA to govern investment. This is a two-way street. Investment promotion and protection agreements are in the interest of CARICOM countries as they provide a high level of comfort for foreign investment that the region critically needs. Further, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago already have investment treaties with Canada so that such treaties are nothing out of the ordinary. In Guyana’s case, where Canadian firms have responded to invitations to invest in the mining sector that is giving the country considerable dividends, an investment chapter in the FTA could only help.
Negotiations on services are reportedly still a problem area for CARICOM governments, but there has been a history of co-operation between Canada and CARICOM countries in services particularly banking and tourism. If flexibility is given to negotiators on both sides, there is every reason to be optimistic about a successful conclusion. Some CARICOM governments would also now be troubled over removing tariffs on Canadian goods entering their countries. The governments are already facing difficulties implementing the tariff cuts to which they signed-up with the EU under the EPA, and they are tormented about how to replace the direct revenues they will lose. However, the tariff cuts with the EU are spread out over a period of years; Canada should agree to a similar arrangement particularly for agriculture.
There are only two negotiating sessions scheduled before June 30 when a FTA between Canada and CARICOM will be effectively dead. Political will and direction are needed on both sides to conclude a realistic and beneficial arrangement. Our leaders should provide it, and so should the leadership of Canada. The Canada-Commonwealth Caribbean relationship has long been ‘special’ to the benefit of both. Allowing the current FTA negotiations to fail could herald the erosion of that ‘specialness‘- to the detriment of both, but more proximately of CARICOM.
And, the big question is: if CARICOM cannot settle a FTA with Canada, what will happen with the US (their biggest market) when the present Caribbean-US arrangement ends?