As the deadline nears for the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and the Dominican Republic (a Caricom observer nation) to enter into an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union many in the region are concerned as to whether or not the signing of an agreement can get done before the current preferential trade regime under the Cotonou Agreement runs its course and comes to an end in December. The hurdles seem to be many and the pessimistic voices that usually appear around this part of a negotiating process are heightening their chants, but Principal  negotiator, the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery Director General, Ambassador, the Honorable Dr. Richard L. Berna is confident obstacles will be hurdled in time. Recently DR1 sat down with the Ambassador and discussed where the negotiations are, what it'll take to get an agreement in place and what the future holds for the Caribbean as a result of an agreement.

Bernal, a seasoned diplomat who is currently the Director-General of the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM) is adamant about the fact that an EPA with the European Union would get done before the Cotonou Agreement ends in December. Bernal explains there are many misconceptions about how the negotiations are going. According to Bernal, market access is one of the biggest issues on the table among the nations that make up the Caribbean Community. Bernal says that many of the Caribbean nations are fighting to protect their goods and tax revenue sources. Many of the smaller Caribbean nations depend on customs revenues. Most of these nations, according to the Ambassador, don’t have or are only recently creating tax structures to where income sales taxation would bring in most revenues, as is the case in the Dominican Republic already.

Bernal says that critics of the process “have to be mindful that this is an undertaking of a large scope that no one in the Caribbean has ever had any experience with. All the regions are struggling to get their acts together because it’s something that has never had to be done before. It’s an all encompassing agreement and it brings it all together.” He adds that it is not just one product, one nation, one idea, it’s the whole gambit being done with 15 nations that have to develop one position and then present that position to the EU.

Unfortunately the process is a “learn as you go” one that has even some of the region’s best and most experienced negotiators scrambling to find answers. In general, Bernal feels that they have done well considering it’s the first time for such a "huge" undertaking. He points to the fact that Cotonou provided the framework, but it was just that, a framework. This process is much bigger. “It is more technical and unprecedented and that’s what makes it so difficult.”

He explained that when you do it locally and then governmentally it’s always difficult because everyone has an agenda. Then when you take that regionally and finally internationally you have a huge challenge. And this is the same with the EU as they have to form a position as a block and then present that position. “The comprehensive nature of the agreement makes it more difficult as trade will now revert from preferential treatment to reciprocity.”

In order to help the process through the CRNM is putting together a group of negotiators that will go to each country and help the countries put their proposals together. Bernal was adamant is explaining that “these negotiators aren’t selling a proposal, they instead want to sit down with governing officials of each nation and help them put together their proposals so the process can move ahead on time.”

Aside from the technical aspect of the EPA negotiations, the biggest issues at hand are more of a philosophical or non-tangible challenge, and that includes a changing of the mindset within the countries of CARICOM. Though some critics have hypothesized the fact that Caricom is once again being rescued by the “old powers” the fact of the matter is that there are decades upon decades of preferential treatment from Europe, Canada and the US that many in the region have become accustomed to. “These negotiations are forcing those in the region to change their way of thinking as the parallel process of negotiating is underway. Since the 1920’s Canada has been giving the Caribbean preferential treatment and Europe has done the same since the 1950’s and questions how one would expected that the transition from preferential treatment to reciprocity to occur in one day.”

Bernal clarifies that Caricom isn’t waiting to be rescued or have their work done for them. But he highlighted that historically speaking, Caricom has always received preferential treatment vis-a-vis the Caribbean Basin Initiative, US, or Canada. He is confident now there is enough push from both sides that want to get this done, and that “it will get done”.

According to Bernal, the smaller countries might have a tougher time changing their stance on things since they feel they have "more" to lose. “It is a sense of vulnerability that drives opposition, but the EPA’s are looking to tackle that issue head on and the negotiations will try to get the best deals for all countries involved,” he says. 

“The EPA will also be an instrument for sustainable development complemented by development assistance. The EU provides various forms of assistance and as the negotiations move ahead Cariforum looks at size, unlike the DR-CAFTA which doesn’t take into consideration details like these.” And though the EU has always been slow in giving out funds, under the Lome and Cotonou agreements, but the signing of a new EPA will not change this. Bureaucratic systems, like that of the EU, are always slow the process, but that’s the nature of a body so large. Things progress slowly and an EPA will not change that system. Bernal explains that the process is not antagonistic but the point is that it is a diverse group with size and development differences and these countries bring to the table diverse needs making the process obviously difficult.

Another challenge for the future of the EPA’s is bananas. Bernal says that bananas will not be included in the EPA. “Bananas are still being disputed and if they are included in the EPA they could be taken to the dispute settlement process at the World Trade Organization. This could jeopardize the whole EPA.” The sugar and rum regimes, which are also delicate topics in the negotiations, haven’t been sorted out and there is still no telling how they will be affected by the EPA. The liberalization of sugar, and its future within the EPA, especially in light of the EU abolishing the Caribbean’s sugar quota, has added a new layer to the discussions of the EPA.

Bernal explained that rum and sugar would be incorporated in the EPA but these products would be negotiated carefully. The European Union recently decided to abolish country quotas and price benchmarks to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries that are former colonies of Great Britain, France or Portugal.
The EU Commission declared that the Sugar Protocol, under the terms of which sugar has been exported to the EU by ACP countries since 1975, is to be renounced at the end of September 2007, with a view to its ending on 30th September, 2009. Bernal highlights that this was a World Trade Organization decision and that now the EU has to find a way to put sugar back into the EPA and find a way to make sure that trading conditions are not worse than before for Caribbean countries. (http://dr1.com/trade/articles/270/1/EU-to-abolish-Caribbean-sugar-quota/Page1.html)

If negotiations leading to the EPA aren’t completed by December, Bernal says the Caribbean has the option of a Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). This is a less advantageous regime. Bernal is optimistic the negotiations will conclude in time.
 
The Dominican Republic’s relationship with Caricom has been shaky at times but Bernal assures that this time the DR is up to speed with its commitments. According to him, "the DR has participated fully and is not one of the countries that is still working on completing their tariff proposal.”
  
Bernal makes it clear that the negotiations will form stronger bonds between Caricom and the DR because they have to present a unified position. “The negotiations by default will create stronger ties. They have to come together to form this one position and that in itself will strengthen ties,” he states. Bernal says this should have happened before, but the EPA is pushing relations in the Caribbean “one step further.”