Alicia Nicholls

On March 22, 2019, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) and nine of the fifteen States comprising the Caribbean Forum (CARIFORUM), a subgroup of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, signed the CARIFORUM-UK Economic Partnership Agreement (CARIFORUM-UK EPA)  which seeks to ensure that the current trade preferences between the UK and CARIFORUM remain after the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU).

This makes CARIFORUM one of nine trading partners with which the UK has to date successfully concluded a trade continuity agreement. This development has been widely welcomed by businesses and private sector associations in the Caribbean. But why was the CARIFORUM-UK EPA necessary and what does it provide for?

The CARIFORUM-UK EPA is between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the one hand, and the fifteen CARIFORUM States (Antigua & Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, the Commonwealth of Dominica, The Dominican Republic, Grenada, The Republic of Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago), on the other.

Nine of the CARIFORUM countries (Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines) signed the Agreement on March 22, 2019 at a signing ceremony in Castries, St. Lucia. Two other CARIFORUM States, Trinidad & Tobago and the Dominican Republic, signed on April 1, 2019 and on April 4, 2019, respectively. The remaining CARIFORUM States have indicated they will sign shortly.

Why is the CARIFORUM-UK EPA necessary?

The UK is currently due to leave the EU on April 12, 2019, unless a further extension to June 30, 2019 requested this week by the UK government is granted by the EU-27.  Until the UK officially leaves the EU, the UK’s trade relations with the fifteen CARIFORUM countries remain governed by the CARIFORUM-European Union Economic Partnership Agreement (CARIFORUM-EU EPA) which was signed and has been provisionally applied since 2008.

The CARIFORUM-EU EPA provides for the asymmetric liberalization of trade between the EU and CARIFORUM States. This includes duty-free and quota-free goods access, preferential access for services providers and investors, and protection for intellectual property. It also includes disciplines relating to government procurement and competition, for example, as well as extensive development cooperation provisions.

When the UK ceases to be an EU member, the CARIFORUM-EU EPA will continue to apply between CARIFORUM States and the remaining EU-27. However, the UK will no longer be party to any of the EU’s trade agreements with third parties, including the CARIFORUM-EU EPA. In the absence of a trade continuity agreement, trade between the UK and CARIFORUM would revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) Most Favoured Nation (MFN) rules. This would have implications for businesses, services providers and investors in the UK and CARIFORUM States dependent on the preferential market access provided for by the CARIFORUM-EU EPA.

A great summary of current CARIFORUM-UK economic relations may be found in the report prepared by the Secretary of State for International Trade for the UK Parliament. According to statistics from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) cited in that report, total goods and services trade between the UK and CARIFORUM States (excluding Haiti) accounted for 0.2% of total UK trade and was £2.5 billion in 2017.

Although there has been a steady decline in CARIFORUM-UK trade over time, the UK currently remains the main market for CARIFORUM exports to the EU. For example, it is a major market for Caribbean rum, banana and sugar exports. Additionally, the UK remains an important source market for tourists to the Caribbean and in the case of Barbados, remains that country’s largest source market for tourist arrivals and real estate foreign direct investment (FDI).

To avoid any disruption in trade and to create some modicum of certainty for UK and CARIFORUM businesses and consumers once the UK leaves the EU, the UK and CARIFORUM promptly commenced dialogue on the conclusion of a trade continuity agreement that would replicate the provisions of the CARIFORUM-EU EPA, to the extent possible.

What does the CARIFORUM-UK Agreement include?

The CARIFORUM-UK EPA, whose main text comprises seventy-six pages, replicates to the extent possible, the text of the CARIFORUM-EU EPA. The previously mentioned Parliamentary Report provides an excellent synopsis of the Agreement, including the necessary differences between the CARIFORUM-UK EPA and CARIFORUM-EU EPA.

Where necessary, the CARIFORUM-UK EPA has removed and replaced references to the EU in the text,  provided for the continuation of time-bound periods, as well as limited the territorial scope of the Agreement to the CARIFORUM States and to the United Kingdom, its Crown Dependencies and Gibraltar.

The CARIFORUM-UK EPA will only take effect once the UK has left the EU. Similar to the CARIFORUM-EU EPA, the CARIFORUM-UK EPA provides for provisional application which allows it to be provisionally applied before all the parties have done the necessary domestic ratification steps to allow for the Agreement’s entry into force.

Additionally, the CARIFORUM-UK EPA provides a safeguard in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. A non-legally binding MoU between the UK and participating CARIFORUM countries aims to stop the gap between the date the CARIFORUM-EU EPA ceases to apply to the UK until the date when the CARIFORUM-UK EPA takes effect. Under this MoU, the parties will use their best endeavours to bring the CARIFORUM-UK EPA into effect as between them within three months of the MoU’s coming into effect, during which time the UK will apply the tariff schedule laid out under the CARIFORUM-UK EPA to those CARIFORUM States which have signed both the CARIFORUM-UK EPA and the MoU. So far, the UK has signed an MoU with the original nine CARIFORUM signatories and another MoU with Trinidad & Tobago.

Since the CARIFORUM-EU EPA’s signature in 2008, many developments have impacted on rule-making in trade agreements. Like the CARIFORUM-EU EPA, the CARIFORUM-UK Agreement includes mechanisms for monitoring the Agreement’s implementation, as well as a revision clause allowing for the parties to broaden or amend the Agreement, including the possibility of bringing the UK’s British Overseas Territories within the scope of the Agreement.

The institutions under the CARIFORUM-EU EPA have been replicated in the CARIFORUM-UK EPA. For example, it establishes a Joint CARIFORUM-UK Council responsible for the Agreement’s implementation and operation, as well as a CARIFORUM-UK Trade and Development Committee to assist the Joint Council. Two joint institutions (namely, the Special Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries and the Technical Sub-Committee on Development Cooperation), which had been established after the CARIFORUM-EU EPA’s signature, are directly included through dedicated articles in the CARIFORUM-UK EPA’s text.

What does it all mean?

As of the date of this article’s publication, the UK still remains an EU member. The original Brexit Day (March 29, 2019) has passed and the extension date of April 12, 2019 is fast approaching. In light of British MPs’ rejection of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement for the third time and no clear consensus among MPs on what they believe the future EU-UK relationship should be, the UK Government has asked for a further extension to June 30, 2019. As it stands, the threat of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit still remains a real possibility.

In light of the current Brexit chaos, CARIFORUM countries’ conclusion of a trade continuity agreement with the UK was a prudent move to preserve continuity and certainty for our businesses, consumers and investors. The CARIFORUM-UK EPA will only take effect once the UK leaves the EU and until such time, CARIFORUM-UK trade relations will remain covered by the CARIFORUM-EU EPA. Indeed, it could be regarded as an insurance policy of sorts – providing peace of mind and only used if and when needed.

The text of the CARIFORUM-UK Economic Partnership Agreement may be found  online here, while the Parliamentary Report which provides a good synopsis may be found here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.