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Sep 26, 2003

Minister: W.T.O. decisions crucial to Belize

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It’s a global organization but its decisions have direct impact on even the smallest communities in the most remote corners of the world. But the average citizen–and this includes most Belizeans–doesn’t give much thought to the movements of the World Trade Organization. But we should. At the last W.T.O. ministerial meeting in Cancun earlier this month, history was made, when approximately one hundred developing countries united, to face off with the first world and fight for fairer trade. Belize was one of those countries and even though nothing has changed since Cancun, the government is sticking to its guns even as think tanks from the United States and Europe come up with cunning ways of getting what they want. According to Belize’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, Eamon Courtenay, if those strategies are successful, the consequences for Belizean businesses would be grave. Courtenay says one of the big players in the W.T.O., the United States has shifted its policy, going after bi-lateral agreements instead of dealing with multi-lateral trade groupings. The U.S. approach means the Americans could be in a position to demand a lot more than countries like Belize can afford to offer.

Eamon Courtenay, Min. of Foreign Trade & Investment

“I think a part of their strategy surely is, if we can have more bilateral agreements it means people will be coming around to us. Let me give you a specific example. One of the big issues are the so-called Singapore issues, which are issues of competition policy, investment, government procurement, trade facilitation. In Cancun, the developing countries said, we are not ready to start those negotiations. In every bilateral free trade agreement with the United States, those four issues are included. So for example, if and when they sign and agreement with Central America, the five Central American countries, those five countries will sign off on those four issues, they will no longer at the next W.T.O. meeting, say that we oppose negotiating in those four areas. Well, you have just signed a treaty with the United States with those, so you can no longer oppose it. Similarly with Bahrain, with Morocco, as you go around the world, as they continue to sign those, those countries will no longer be able to say in the W.T.O. that they oppose it.

“A similar type thing is happening between the European Union and the African Caribbean and Pacific countries. Because we are about to start negotiations with the European Union, the West African countries have said that they are ready to negotiate as a region with the European Union. The European Union has taken the same position that those four issues: competition, investment, government procurement, and trade facilitation, they have to be in those negotiations. Therefore, the West African countries, in Hong Kong, it will be difficult for them to say they no long want to negotiate that. The effect of that is clearly to erode the solidarity across the developing countries, at least on those areas. But I think the congress is also true, market access that United States or the European Union would have to give in those bilateral negotiations will make it harder for them to maintain the hard line stance as well that they have in the W.T.O.

“So, I think the bilateral way it cutting up the world into much trading smaller trading blocks. It is dividing the developing countries and so I think unbalance that is not in the interest of most developing countries, because if they can pick you off one by one, they get much better market access, much suitable terms for the developed world.”

“I think Belize has suffered. The banana case is a clear example of what the W.T.O. can do to Belize. Here it is that we had preferential access into the European Union for our bananas. After the W.T.O. came into being, Panama, Ecuador commenced a case in the W.T.O., it really was at the instigation of the big American multinational companies. But that case effectively said that those preferences that we had were illegal and they had to change. And therefore, there has been tremendous pressure on our banana industry to reform itself to be competitive on a worldwide basis when everybody knows that our cost of input is much higher.

The effect of that on the Windward Island, Dominica, St. Lucia, and those countries have been far more devastating. Dominica is virtually bankrupted today as a country, simply because it depended on one crop and that crop is now…literally you cut it down. Suriname has taken a similar decision, they’ve just said, well, that’s it for bananas.

“Then I give another example, the question of sugar. And it’s going to directly affect us. A case has now been started in the W.T.O. brought by Australia, Brazil, and Thailand, against the European Union. We export the majority of our sugar to the European Union under a preferential arrangement, they have started a case challenging the European Union’s preferential arrangements for sugar. If those three countries win that case against the European Union, it means that the price for sugar we receive in Belize will go down. And as you know, the farmers up north are already screaming that they are not getting enough from B.S.I. So we would have taken a hit in bananas, it is possible we can take a hit in sugar; that’s two of our main commodities. Those two are absolutely direct effect of the W.T.O.”

“Both sides realize that we are at a standoff and nobody wins, everybody loses in that scenario. And so I think the question really is, who moves first. For the big countries, it’s a question of subsidies. They do not want to give up their subsidies unless they are guaranteed market access for their farmers as well. The developing world is saying, we are not going to give you market access until you reduce your subsidies so that we can get into your market. And what I suspect you are going to have is something where the negotiations will continue on the basis of what we call a single undertaking, which means nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So that you can show your cards and I will show mine knowing full well that you can’t hold me to that point, that we have agreed on everything.”

Negotiations will resume in the general council at the W.T.O headquarters in Geneva in the first week of December. The next ministerial meeting is scheduled for Hong Kong, in December 2004.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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