Controversy continues in the Caribbean and well beyond on the nature of the negotiations and accompanying dealings which the various ACP member-states have had with the European Union in arriving at regional Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). The various contenders in the pro and anti-EPA contentions as it evolved continue to do verbal and journalistic battle, the contentions arising again particularly after it was announced that Jamaica was going to have to increase its General Consumption Tax in order to maintain revenue lost as a result of the liberalization of its imports from Europe under the EPA.

But lately noises have also been coming out of southern Africa, with certain expressions of displeasure from the major state, South Africa, as to how their EPA negotiations have been going, and about the possibility that they could lead to a long-term split among the countries of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). As things stand at present, it is reported that the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania broke from SADC to negotiate with other regional groupings , Tanzania going with the East African Community which has collectively agreed to a full EPA along the lines of Caricom. Other SADC members −  Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho − have signed interim EPAs. The latter three are also, with South Africa, members of the South African Customs Union (SACU), the successor arrangement to the pre-independence trade and customs relationship which they had with South Africa, and this obviously has implications for the unity of SACU. South Africa, Angola and Namibia have held off signing any agreement so far.

So what has so far happened in southern and eastern Africa is a geographically larger version of the events that occurred in Caricom in the latter part of 2008, and the European Union has reacted in much the same way – refusing to budge on the essentials of the outline for an EPA with which it initiated discussions.

At the wider level of the ACP grouping, the implication for us, as has been noted before, is the effective end of the ACP as a negotiating and diplomatic grouping with which Caricom has hitherto stuck. It had done so on the basis that a collective approach would provide them, as relatively small entities, with the strength to negotiate an effective agreement which it might have been harder to achieve on their own. In addition, in the 1980s and ’90s, the ACP was perceived as one of the building blocks towards the larger negotiations with the developed countries in the forums negotiating the WTO and, subsequently, the completion of the Doha Development Round.

On the other hand, however, some analysts have seen the ACP as a hangover from the colonial era – an interim agreement to accommodate the transition from colonial economic arrangements. In their view this was bound to fracture, as the ex-colonial states found new geo-economic configurations, and the former European imperial states themselves sought to dissolve the distinction between their various, formerly colonial, territories and other states, and to treat them as single entities with which individual arrangements had to be reached. From a Caricom point of view, we saw the first practical breach of the old colonial unity or homogeneity in Europe’s recognition of a separate grouping of Least Developed Countries who would be given duty-free access to goods along the same lines as the ACP states. Then a second breach was, in effect, forced upon the EU, when in the context of the WTO, a ruling was given that Caricom certainly saw as putting Brazil and some African states on the same footing as themselves in the international trade in commodities like sugar and cotton, and therefore at a practical advantage given their size.

The stance of those who see the ACP-EU relationship as ‘past tense’ has been that the new arrangements, in particular the EPAs, recognize emerging post-colonial economic re-arrangements sanctified by the WTO Treaty, and which cannot, and therefore should not, be resisted. This has been the stance of the Government of Jamaica, for example, under Prime Minister Golding who came into to office in the middle of the controversy on the evolution of the Caricom-EU EPA, and it has been followed by other states, crucially Barbados on a bipartisan basis. From that point of view, it is for the CSME to, as it were, find its way around any perceived impediments of the EPA, particularly in respect of the cohesion and future evolution of the CSME.

From this perspective, Caricom countries have been surprised at what they perceived during the negotiations as a certain inflexibility of the EU in its response to their objections to aspects of the proposed EPA. They were surprised too, to find little sympathy from the British government in the appeals which they made to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, taking cognizance perhaps too late of the fact that the EU’s Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, had been an influential member of the post-1997 Blair government. And Caricom prime ministers will also have observed that the traditional defender of ‘West Indian interests’ in the United Kingdom, the Caribbean Council (previously the West India Committee), essentially lined up on the UK-EU side of the argument. Its current Director has forcefully supported the Jamaican argument that, in the circumstances of Britain’s other contemporary preoccupations and the EU’s preoccupation with its newly acquired East-Central Europe integration responsibilities, the EPA deal was, and is, the best that could be obtained.

The EPA negotiations confirm for Caricom that their old expectation that Britain would act as their interlocuteur valable – the diplomatic advance guard, protector and expositor of their positions in international trade negotiations, is no longer valid. How different is the present situation from that of the period following Britain’s announcement of its intended adherence to the European Community, when Jamaica’s Trade Minister, Robert Lightbourne demanded, and the Caribbean indeed obtained, what he called “bankable assurances” that their agricultural exports would retain the traditional protection – as evidenced in the first Lome Convention.

Britain’s new realism has been reinforced by changes in the attitude of France, more determined to find new ways of protecting its interests in specific African countries, and in ensuring the evolution of an appropriate relationship between the Mediterranean states (including those of North Africa) with the EU. And, similarly, any traditional attachment of Britain to Caricom’s anglophone countries, will have been chipped away by a newly-revived Spanish (and Portuguese) insistence that the wider Caribbean − that is the Caribbean including the non-anglophone Greater Antilles, should be a substantial focus of European interest in the Caribbean. The confident stance of the Dominican Republic in the EPA discussions − so different from the negotiating periods of the second half of the 1980s when she was largely treated as a threat to be avoided at all costs,  and the deepening interest of continental Europe in the evolution of Haiti, point in that direction.

Add to this Europe’s persistent interest in the last two decades in consolidating new economic relationships with the South American states, and in particular Brazil, and we see the likelihood of Europe virtually subordinating itself to Brazilian initiatives which some in the Caricom have interpreted as potentially harmful to our economic interests (Guyana certainly found no support for her cries against the WTO decision on sugar). But obviously, on the other hand, Brazil’s call is for the Caribbean to align itself more practically with the South American international initiatives, as evident in the recent stream of meetings held on the continent at the end of 2008, while she pursues economic initiatives towards specific countries in Africa.

Is the import of all of these developments a certain necessity for the Caribbean, not simply Caricom, to fit into the wider patterns evolving in hemispheric relations with the European Union? And if so, what does this mean for our diplomacy. Caricom should ponder on these things.

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