Caribbean's quest for WTO waiver

Guyana Chronicle
March 31, 2000

EARLY REPORTS out of the New Orleans meeting Wednesday between Caribbean Foreign Ministers and the United States Secretary of State have indicated that President Bill Clinton's administration is disposed to giving serious consideration to the Caribbean's request for American support for a waiver application currently before the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

While we await the official communique on the outcome of this second annual meeting between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a delegation of Caribbean Foreign Ministers, among them Guyana's Clement Rohee, it is encouraging to know that Washington appears more responsive, or sensitive to the concerns of the region in securing and expanding its trade and economic interests with major traditional partners.

Most urgent is the USA's support for the Caribbean and its African and Pacific partners in their quest to secure a waiver from the WTO for a transitional framework agreement with the European Union as a successor agreement to the now expired Lome 1V Convention.

This, moreso, in view of this region's known disagreement with the Clinton administration over the Caribbean banana export trade with the EU and the impact of US influence on WTO's dispute panel rulings.

France has already placed on record its commitment to support such a WTO waiver. President Jacques Chirac, who met with Caribbean heads of state and government on March 10 in Guadeloupe, has gone even further. He has pledged his government's support for the Caribbean and other small states with vulnerable economies to benefit from special concessions in coping with the demands of international economic integration and trade liberalisation.

The waiver application to ensure WTO compatibility for the successor agreement to Lome 1V is vital to the new relationship to be forged between the ACP and EU with the forthcoming signing in June in Fiji of the eight-year transitional agreement that embraces several important commodity protocols including sugar, bananas and rum.

Caribbean leaders at their recent meeting in St. Kitts had decided, in a review of the region's external trade and economic relations, to launch a vigorous political and diplomatic offensive against a declared initiative by Panama to oppose the waiver application before the WTO.

Caribbean leaders have expressed surprise and anger at this move by a member nation of the Association of Caribbean States - a bloc of countries traditionally cooperative with the 71-member ACP group, and which is also a member of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Some leaders have even suggested that Panama may be acting as the "proxy" for a rich and powerful nation.

Approval of the WTO waiver application requires three- quarters majority support among the member countries of the world body. Consequently, it is counting heavily not only on the backing of superpower USA. It is also very mindful to avoid divisions among developing nations, such as Panama and other countries in this hemisphere, when the decision is taken on the application within a week of the planned signing of the EU-ACP framework agreement.

The Guyana Government, conscious of the country's heavy dependence on exports of sugar, rice and rum and, therefore, the necessity to ensure a roll-over of vital commodity protocols from Lome 1V, has every reason to be anxious that success is achieved in the bid for the WTO waiver for the new ACP-EU framework agreement until a more long-term agreement is secured.

We can only hope that the assurances given in New Orleans by Secretary of State Albright, will be translated into practical support to secure WTO approval of the waiver application this region and its allies in the ACP group so greatly need.