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Caricom-Canada Talks Stall Again, Near Collapse

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By Bert Wilkinson
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

In the clearest indication yet that Canada and the 15-nation Caribbean trade bloc might not have a free trade agreement anytime soon, if at all, in the past week regional governments have blamed Canada’s inflexibility and inherent arrogance for stalling talks, and expressed anger at Ottawa, Canda, for ignoring requests for a special leaders summit to break the deadlock.

For the past six years, the two sides have been negotiating a deal to replace the decades-old CARIBCAN Agreement that had basically allowed goods from Caricom to enter Canada duty-free, but it has long been deemed to be noncompliant with current world rules governing free trade and tax-free access for a range of items from apparel to rums to vegetables.

In the past week, regional governments have written to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, warning that the talks are on their deathbed largely because “Canada continues to place the onus on the grouping of mostly small island nations to show further flexibility,” and instead calling on Canadian negotiators “to show flexibility in relation to a number of Caricom’s key interests.”

They have even gone so far as to remind Canada that there is a vast difference in geographic size, population and purchasing power when Canada is compared to all of the member states. Only Haiti, with close to 9 million people, and Jamaica, which is headed toward 3 million, have any significant numbers to discuss. Incidentally, Caricom dominates trade with Canada in regard to surpluses, largely thanks to gold and petroleum product exports from Guyana and Suriname and Trinidad, respectively.

In order to meet the June 2014 conclusion date, the ministers called on Canada to show flexibility in relation to a number of Caricom’s key interests, taking into account the need to respect the principle of asymmetry and the differences in the levels of development and size between the two sides.

Underscoring the current state of no “play,” Caricom and Canadian negotiators have not even set an agreed date for the next round of talks since the last meeting, which took place in Jamaica in April. Officials said that there is no indication of when the sides will meet again because governments, as stated in the letter, “are concerned at the lack of response to a request from Caricom Chairman Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent for a meeting with the prime minister of Canada.”

Both sides had set a June deadline for completion of the talks, which began back in 2009.

Many of the small eastern Caribbean islands with precious little to export are known to be adamantly opposed to open free trade with Canada, fearing their economies will be swamped by cheaper imported products.

The letter argued that Canada must “take into account the need to respect the principle of asymmetry and the differences in the levels of development and size between the two sides. Many of the states are experiencing severe fiscal imbalances,” the governments said, noting that “Canada has not yet responded to Caricom’s requests for improvements” in reduction of tariff levels for some products.

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