With negotiations for a modern Canada-Caribbean community (CARICOM) trade and development agreement at a standstill, federal Minister of National Defence Jason Kenney is urging regional diplomats in Ottawa and Toronto, Caribbean-Canadian business leaders and nationals to use their connections in the Caribbean to help reboot the bargaining talks.
The seventh round of negotiations concluded in Barbados last June and Gail Mathurin, the director general of CARICOM’s Office of Trade Negotiations (OTN), promised at the time that a deal that will lead to the promotion of trade, investment and the transfer of technology was imminent.
However, the discussions have stalled, prompting Kenney to implore Caribbean diplomats and immigrants to help build broader bridges of prosperity between Canada and the Caribbean.
“We think free trade is the one way of doing that,” he said. “Our government has been trying for several years to pursue free trade negotiations with CARICOM countries. It hasn’t gone very far. It’s like we are taking two steps forward and one backwards. We haven’t had enough forward-leaning political will in the Caribbean countries to pursue this with vigour. Canada has signed over 45 trade agreements with countries in the past eight years and we want to get this done.”
Kenney suggested that some Caribbean governments are not interested in free trade.
“We think it would be to the advantage of the CARICOM countries in raising their prosperity to trade with Canada more,” he said. “We believe the strong and successful Caribbean business community in Canada would be an obvious bridge to seize that opportunity, but we need political leadership from the Caribbean countries to move the football down the field.”
Kenney said Canada is committed to negotiating a modern trade agreement with CARICOM that will take into account differing levels of development, vulnerabilities associated with island states and trade-related capacity challenges.
“Every one of those countries has its own protectionist interests and they often revolve around agriculture,” he said. “We can discuss those issues around the table. Our position is not all or nothing. We are prepared to entertain certain exceptions just as we ask other countries to entertain exemptions for the Canadian supply management sector.
“We are dealing with so many different countries in the Caribbean. We did that with the European Union which has 28 countries because I think they have a stronger central governance structure in Brussels. You could actually negotiate with an EU negotiator and it would have some meaning. We find, I believe, dealing with CARICOM is like you are dealing with a very fractured organization in many ways. I don’t want to be critical because these are friends and allies and we provide international development assistance. I am not criticizing any of the Caribbean countries or CARICOM and I want to be clear about that. I am just saying that, unfortunately, we have not seen much more forward momentum on the trade agenda and we would like to see stronger political leadership to make that happen.”
The new proposed agreement will replace the Caribbean-Canada Trade Agreement (CARIBCAN) initiated in 1986 as a unilateral extension by Canada of duty free access to the Canadian market for most commodities originating from the Caribbean. The agreement ended on December 31, 2013, after an extended World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver for Caribbean countries’ tariff expired.
The waiver was necessary because, under the WTO’s Most Favoured Nation Principle, all members are entitled to receive the most beneficial tariff treatment offered by a member.
While on a visit to Barbados eight years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and CARICOM heads of state announced the launch of the Canada-CARICOM free trade negotiations that has the potential to enhance Canada’s bilateral economic relationships with the Caribbean and strengthen this country’s presence in the Americas.