Caribbean civil society representatives to the EPA implementation meeting should ensure their voice is heard

In a matter of days, representatives of Caribbean civil society will meet in Trinidad to discuss the process of EPA implementation. The meeting may seem like yet another achingly boring session on a mechanism that has so far failed to inject any excitement or significant economic growth into the Caribbean; but those invited, this time, would be well advised to attend and to ensure that their voice is heard.

What sets this meeting apart is that on its agenda is an item which takes the first step towards bringing into being the Caribbean part of the body that is meant to advise officials, ministers and parliamentarians about what practically is required to make the Economic Partnership Agreement with Europe work.

As is now well known, Cariforum and the European Union signed in 2008 an asymmetrical trade and development agreement that aimed through freer trade and economic integration to stimulate growth, principally through the private sector.

It also provided, in part, for support for the public sector to facilitate reforms that would cause change in the Caribbean economic and regulatory environment prior to the region opening its markets to a limited range of European goods and services.

In doing so the EPA proposed an extraordinarily complex and costly method of joint governance for the arrangement, including a review mechanism; a ministerial level Joint Cariforum-EC Council to deal with policy issues; an implementing Cariforum-EC Trade and Development Committee at the level of officials to address technical matters; a joint Cariforum-EC Parliamentary Committee to provide for political debate and oversight; a Special Committee on Customs Cooperation and Trade Facilitation; and a Cariforum-EC Consultative Committee to involve representatives of the social partners including NGOs, trades unions, educational establishments and the private sector and its representative bodies.

Of these institutions all but the Caribbean side of the last body, the joint Cariforum-EC Consultative Committee, has been established. As a consequence there has been up to now no formal mechanism to have civil society’s voice heard in relation to the EPA.

According to past European documents the joint consultative committee when operational will advise and assist ministers and officials. It will consist, when meeting on an EU-Cariforum basis of a committee of 40 standing members representing organisations from civil society of which twenty-five will represent organisations located in Cariforum and fifteen will be from organisations located in the EU in categories that include social and economic partners, the academic community and non-governmental organisations, including development and environmental organisations. The European Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC) is, according to the same EU documents, to serve as the secretariat of the joint committee.

This week’s meeting, which takes place more than two years after Europe established the composition of its counterpart consultative committee, is intended to enable participants to discuss different ways in which Caribbean civil society might participate in regional preparatory meetings or in the joint meetings themselves.

It will also consider how the body might be supported by the Cariforum directorate and recommend to Cariforum ministers who will eventually participate.

This may not be easy as it requires the participants, who come from a wide range of regional entities including universities, NGOs, trades unions and sectoral private sector interests in both Caricom and the Dominican Republic, to achieve a consensus on a list that will, to paraphrase Caricom, enable an “equitable, geographical spread and coverage of non-state entities and sectors.”

In all of this what remains far from clear is whether this is simply a box ticking exercise in the run up to the mid-term review of the EPA, and an attendant and rapidly developing blame game for partial non-implementation, or whether this represents a genuine attempt to ensure that those whom the EPA was meant to benefit can actually have their voice heard.

Unfortunately, what little that has transpired in respect of the EPA since 2008 makes clear that the labyrinthine structure set up to govern the delivery of the agreement is not just impractical but is almost the reverse of what is  required if growth is to be encouraged  though the active engagement of civil society.

In the real world, making progress depends not on mechanisms or ministerial approval but in governments facilitating the creativity and spirit of civil society to move matters forward.

It is about breaking free from, for example, the mutual suspicion that still pervades relations between the public and private sector in much of the anglophone part of the region and making less pervasive the overlapping and exclusive elite groups, whether in the professions, government, academia or the private sector, that so frustrate the ambitious and educated young in so many countries in the region.

Going forward the new body deserves to be taken seriously. It offers a vehicle in the short term for finding ways to address the cynicism that exists about the agreement’s value. Its input can demonstrate that the EPA has a practical purpose and encourage creativity in thinking about the new opportunities the EPA might offer.  More importantly it will, if it can be encouraged to work effectively, provide space for a practical regional voice that is not government, prepared to create waves, with the potential to demand the attention of ministers and action by officials.

For this reason the meeting has the potential to reach far beyond the difficulties of EPA implementation. It offers a first opportunity for the participants to demonstrate publically that a basis might exist for regeneration of regional thinking through the dynamic of civil society.

Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org

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