Internationally competitive European industries wanted to legally exploit the developing Caribbean markets. To achieve that aim, their governments wanted to negotiate a trade agreement with the Caribbean. That trade agreement was called the Economic Partnership Agreement.
With the benefit of our FTAA preparations in 2002, Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean were well-positioned to negotiate a favourable trade agreement with Europe. However, the European’s Aid for Trade incentive proved too much of a distraction.
The Europeans would go on to secure an advantageous future for Europe’s children and grandchildren. We seemed blinded by the short-term benefits of European aid and squandered it.
For the next five years, European aid money flowed across the Caribbean, chased by consultants who fashionably called themselves trade experts. Consultants would assemble practitioners from different disciplines in a room, where we seemed to be pitted against each other.
I attended several of those discussions. Each discipline’s ‘must-haves’ were diluted to get some sort of compromise, as if we were negotiating among ourselves. It made no logical sense, but I was reminded that I was not a trade expert and they knew what they were doing.
I tried explaining how important it was to try trading with Europe in order to identify the actual trade barriers, since each European country had different regulations. When we were trying to trade in the US and Canada in preparation for the FTAA, we were told that there were no trade barriers. However, we tested that assertion.
We tried to offer our services in the US but learnt that we needed a State License. To get a State License, we needed to pass that State’s professional examinations. When we tried to apply to take the examinations, there was a small mandatory section on the application form for us to insert a Social Security number, which we did not have. When we applied to get a Social Security number, we learnt that only US citizens and residents could apply. Therefore, there were hidden barriers that would automatically disqualify all of us from trading in the US.
Whenever I made any suggestions based on our experience with preparing for the FTAA, these trade experts seemed more interested in completing their contracted assignments, so that they could get paid and chase another EPA consultancy.
Five years later in 2007, I learnt that negotiations were being concluded. I asked our trade negotiators to see a draft of what they were negotiating on our behalf. I was told that the draft was a secret document so I could not see it. I was chided for even asking for it, and for being unaware of how trade negotiations worked.
Given the permanent consequences for our children, I said that I would approach the Europeans for a copy. I was ridiculed for even expressing such a thought. I visited the European’s website where they were encouraging their practitioners to download this ‘secret’ document.
While we in the Caribbean were encouraging isolation and secrecy, the Europeans were encouraging transparency and feedback from their practitioners. Our side, with little knowledge of the industries for trading, seemed to be motivated by whatever prestige they thought came with negotiating a trade agreement. The Europeans seemed to have no such cravings. They seemed focused on negotiating the most advantageous trade agreement for European industries.
After reading this ‘secret’ document, I was horrified at what we had ‘negotiated’. I can only imagine that when the European negotiators saw what we were willing to give up, they must have struggled to contain their delight at their good fortune. The best analogy I can think of is that they found themselves in the favourable position of taking milk from an unsupervised baby.
I literally begged our trade negotiators not to recommend that draft for our politicians to sign. They were arrogantly dismissive. I then wrote publicly about the dangers of signing the EPA document in its present form, and recommended that we take another look at it, since I was unaware of any other Caribbean practitioner who had read it. However, our politicians chose to believe these trade experts, signed it despite published objections, and forced an unsuspecting generation of Caribbean people into the End Game.
The Europeans are willing to wait 25 years before our children are forced to compete against a combined European market. This will ensure that most of the current generation of internationally competitive practitioners have retired. Approximately half of that time has now elapsed – and has been squandered by our politicians.
Our FTAA preparations showed that we did not need European Aid, we just needed people who genuinely cared. After ‘investing’ about BD$200M of Aid, the Europeans publicly expressed their surprise and disappointment at the lack of any meaningful preparation in the Caribbean – but those who received this money probably could not believe their good fortune.
While the Europeans are actively preparing the next generation of Europeans to compete in an EPA market, both DLP and BLP administrations pursued policies that would prevent the next generation from becoming internationally competitive. They also encouraged our children to believe in an illusion, which will leave them unprepared to succeed in the new reality. To be continued next week.
Grenville Phillips II is a Chartered Structural Engineer and President of Solutions Barbados. He can be reached at NextParty246@gmail.com