(Jamaica Gleaner) Less than two months remain to the agreed deadline for the conclusion of talks on a free-trade agreement between CARICOM and Canada, and the tensions are showing.
In a signal of its frustration, the department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development Canada, or DFATD, said Caribbean negotiators are not as forthcoming as Canada needs them to be to strike a new trade deal that will replace the current arrangement known as CaribCan.
“Canada has communicated our desire to conclude negotiations in the immediate term, and urging CARICOM to bring an appropriate level of ambition to the table to do so,” said DFATD spokeswoman Caitlin Workman in response to Wednesday Business queries.
Workman was not forthcoming on the specifics of the Caribbean’s lack of ambition when asked to clarify, citing the “confidential nature” of the ongoing negotiations.
“I can tell you that Canada is seeking an ambitious outcome from CARICOM that ensures the interests of both sides are addressed,” she said.
Meantime, Jamaican officials said they would offer a unified response after consultations.
Margaret Lim, the head of communications for Jamaica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, said Tuesday that Permanent Secretary Ambassador Paul Robotham had begun those consultations.
Previously, sources within the foreign ministry said the parties were still deadlocked on market access for goods, services and investment, development, and environment and labour standards.
It’s understood that some of the hold-up is due to concerns by some CARICOM countries that the shift to a reciprocal arrangement could lead to the opening up of a trade gap in Canada’s favour and less revenue collected at the port.
As far back as 2001, CARICOM and Canada started exploring the possibility of a reciprocal free-trade agreement.
Jamaica’s foreign ministry said the agreement would supersede the non-reciprocal arrangement in CaribCan, which has existed since 1986. A sixth round of negotiations was held in Kingston on March 3-7 and concluded in Ottawa, Canada, between March 31 and April 4.
A World Trade Organization waiver that facilitates duty-free access to Canada’s market expired in December. However, Canada is still according duty-free treatment to goods from CARICOM under CaribCan, but both sides have set June 30 as the date to finalise a replacement trade pact.
CaribCan’s duty-free access was secured through exemption under the Most Favoured Nation non-discrimination principle of the WTO.
It differs from a free-trade agreement which would receive a permanent waiver under the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade.
“While there was some progress, gaps remain between both sides on key issues related to market access for goods, services and investment, and labour and environment. Both sides agreed to reflect on the state of play and thus a date was not set for a seventh round of negotiations,” said our foreign affairs sources.
The issue is said to be on the agenda for the 38th session of CARICOM ‘s Council for Trade and Economic Development, under way in Guyana from May 6 to 10.
On April 7, Prime Minister of The Bahamas Perry Christie said the meetings with Canada “have proven difficult and a settlement has been nettlesome”, while calling for his colleagues to summon the political will to stay the course during an address at the UWI, St Augustine campus.
Christie indicated that CARICOM had chips to call in.
“We remember that it was Canada who came to us to ask us to support their resistance to the move of the headquarters of the International Civil Avia-tion Organization from Montreal.
They did so on the basis of our traditional friendship. Yet, our traditional friendship has not been strong enough so far to be leveraged into the conclusion of a trade pact. It is highly arguable that there is a fundamental disequilibrium in that,” he said.
Jamaica enjoys a trade surplus with Canada.
Workman said last week that for Jamaica itself, a Canada- CARICOM trade deal would expand its existing duty-free access into Canada for top exports such as chemicals, metals, alcoholic beverages, fruits and vegetables, processed agricultural products and fish and seafood.
She said Canada wants to “work together” with CARICOM to grow and expand their trade and investment relationship.
Members of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States may be among the most vociferous objectors to reciprocal free trade with Canada.
The territories say they have little to export, while the new agreement would open up their economies to Canadian products entering duty-free or with preferential access, according to news reports.