October 3, 2023

The need for a CARICOM Trade and Development Strategy

Alicia Nicholls

Last week the European Union (EU), one of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)’s largest and key trading partners, released a communication outlining what would be the elements of the EU’s new trade strategy over the medium term.

This article discusses the elements of the new EU trade strategy, but does so as a backdrop to explain why a similar exercise by CARICOM, as well as a comprehensive review of CARICOM’s existing trade agreements, is long overdue.

The elements of the new EU trade strategy

The EU has indicated that in light of new internal and external challenges, which include its more sustainable growth model, it will be formulating a new trade policy. According to the Commission’s communication, the EU needs a new trade policy strategy which “will support achieving its domestic and external policy objectives and promote greater sustainability in line with its commitment of fully implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals”.

The new ‘open, sustainable and assertive’ trade policy would be based on what the Commission has termed ‘Open Strategic Autonomy’. This concept is defined in the EU communication as follows: “Open strategic autonomy emphasises the EU’s ability to make its own choices and shape the world around it through leadership and engagement, reflecting its strategic interests and values”.

The communication outlines the core objectives of what will be the EU’s new trade policy for the medium term. These are (1) supporting the recovery and fundamental transformation of the EU economy in line with its green and digital objectives; (2) shaping global rules for a more sustainable and fairer globalization and (3) increasing the EU’s capacity to pursue its interests and enforce its rights, including autonomously where needed.

While the document notes that multilateralism and open trade remain central tenets of the EU’s trade strategy, it strongly hints at the possibility of the EU taking unilateral action on enforcing its rights against what it terms ‘unfair trade practices’. It is likely this assertive tone is aimed at China and the US, in particular.

To deliver on the objectives of its new trade strategy, the Commission has indicated that it would focus on several deliverables, including “reinforcing the EU’s focus on implementing and enforcing trade agreements, and ensuring a level playing field for EU businesses”.

Considering the EU’s recognition that the majority of global growth is expected to take place outside of the EU in the coming years, it is not surprising that another deliverable for its new trade policy outlined in the communication is “deepening the EU’s partnerships with neighbouring, enlargement countries and Africa”. The Caribbean is not among the regions prioritized. While it could be argued that this is because of the longstanding relationship between the EU and CARIFORUM under the EU-ACP relationship, many African countries are part of the long-standing EU-ACP relationship as well.

One of the things the African region has over the Caribbean and why so many countries, including China and now those in the Caribbean, are making greater overtures towards the African continent, is that Africa is clearly one of the new hotspots for global growth. Some African countries, like Rwanda for example, are becoming shining examples of post-conflict growth and development. Moreover, Africa’s growth prospects will be boosted with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) which came into effect January 1, 2021 and is currently being operationalized. Meanwhile in the Caribbean, with the exception of Guyana which has benefited from its new oil exporter status, growth among our countries remains lacklustre, beset by several shocks, with the COVID-19 pandemic being one of the latest.

The need for a CARICOM trade and development strategy

The EU’s announcement of its new trade strategy made me wonder, and not for the first time, does CARICOM have a trade and development strategy? After several inquiries, I am none the wiser as I am yet to see any public document which outlines a comprehensive CARICOM trade and development strategy.

Some individual CARICOM Member States, for example Belize, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, have clearly outlined and documented trade policy/strategy documents which can be easily found with a simple Google search. But there is a need for a comprehensive and clearly articulated region-wide strategy for trade and development. Why? Quite simply, we are stronger when we are unified. Among the objectives of the Community outlined under Article 6 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas is the enhanced coordination of Member States’ foreign and foreign economic policies. Enhanced coordination does not mean a requirement to consolidate, but it stems from a recognition that the region is stronger on any given matter of a foreign policy or foreign economic policy nature when our approach is unified. In much the same way, a unified approach on a regional trade and development strategy would be beneficial to the region.

There was a CARICOM Strategic Plan for the period 2015-2019, which was the first of its kind and which outlines a strategy for repositioning CARICOM, including its trade and investment relations. However, there is no publicly available information, as far as I am aware, on whether the goals under this plan have been achieved or whether its operation was even assessed. Will there be another five year strategic plan? One is certainly needed given the changing realities our countries confront.These are questions that should be easily answered by being able to look on CARICOM’s website.

A comprehensive CARICOM trade and development strategy is especially important now that it is pellucidly clear that the overreliance on a single sector for economic activity, employment and foreign exchange, which is tourism for most of us, remains a perilous development strategy. It has long been recognised that there is a need to not only diversify our trade through higher value-added goods and services, but expand links with non-traditional partners, such as China, African countries, India and countries of the Middle East. How can our existing trade agreements with current major partners be leveraged to support our goals of export diversification and expansion? Do we need trade agreements with some of our newer partners? How can we better utilise economic diplomacy and our diasporas as part of our trade strategy?

Any CARICOM trade strategy must be clearly undergirded by the region’s strategic development objectives, and logically linked to an industrial policy. It must complement and not be divorced from strategies to promote MSME growth and internationalization or diaspora engagement. Of course, formulating such a strategy would be an involved process and should involve extensive consultations with key stakeholders both at the regional and national levels, including the private sector, civil society and ordinary citizens. Much could be learned from the process of how the EU does its consultations.

This brings me to another critique, the lack of transparency which remains a problem in our region. It is not good enough that those of us who follow trade know more about what goes on in other regions, especially the EU through its excellent website and other communications infrastructure, than what happens in CARICOM.

Although CARICOM has introduced some commendable outputs like its use of social media, weekly video summary of what is happening in the Community and its summary of business news across the region, it would also be helpful to see more substantive information on what is discussed in COTED and COFCOR meetings. The issues discussed in these meetings have an impact on the ordinary CARICOM citizen and it is regrettable that often there are no communiques released after these meetings or where there are, the information usually appears generic with little substance.

Need for review of CARICOM’s trade agreements

Lastly, there is also the need for a comprehensive evaluation of the region’s trade agreements in much the same way as I called for a review of our existing bilateral investment treaties in a previous article. CARICOM has partial scope agreements with Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba. It has free trade agreements (FTAs) with the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.  The CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement is CARICOM’s first FTA with a developed country partner, and the CARIFORUM-UK EPA rolls over the provisions of this agreement to cover CARIFORUM-UK trade now that the UK has exited the EU. Most CARICOM countries also benefit from non-reciprocal preferential market access for their goods to the Canadian market through CARIBCAN and to the United States (US) through the Caribbean Basin Initiative. Individual CARICOM countries also have partial scope agreements, often with neighbouring countries in South or Central America.

Unfortunately, most of the data on the utilization of these agreements are via reports published by our partners, and not through our own publicly available independent studies. In the case of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, we have to rely on the biennial reports published by the United States International Trade Commission (USITC) for data on the operation of that programme.

In the case of the CARIFORUM-EU EPA, it is through the review reports commissioned by the European Commission . The most recent European Commission report on the monitoring of the EPA, though noting some progress with implementation, highlights several remaining implementation deficits. It also shows that the Agreement remains underutilized and that in some cases, there is limited awareness by firms of the existence of the Agreement and the opportunities thereunder. This is despite the many sensitization workshops, seminars and literature conducted and disseminated on the EPA. Why is this? And how can it be fixed?

An excellent study by McClean and Khadan of 2014, which was published by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), found that the situation of under-utilisation is endemic with all of the region’s trade agreements. A key paragraph from the study is deserving of particular attention:

In spite of the various trade agreements negotiated, CARICOM export performance has not
improved significantly and there has been little movement up the value chain, particularly since
subregional economies have been unable to transform their production systems in order to take
advantage of the market access opportunities provided by these trade arrangements. In addition,
production and exports of Caribbean goods are extremely specialized and along with its services sectors
have been declining in competitiveness. (McClean & Khadan 2014)

Is it not time that CARICOM conduct its own public review of the operation of its trade agreements to empirically ascertain the reasons for the poor utilisation by regional firms of its trade agreements, but also whether these agreements are making any contribution to regional development? Larger countries and regions, like the EU and US, do periodic review of their agreements. I see no reason why we should not be doing the same. Moreover, any report from such a review should be made publicly available.

In summary, the EU’s recognition of the need to rethink its trade strategy in light of changing economic and geopolitical developments and its more sustainable growth model reiterates why a similar exercise is long overdue in CARICOM.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. All views herein expressed are her personal views and should not be attributed to any institution with which she may from time to time be affiliated. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.


The Caribbean Trade Law and Development Blog is owned and was founded by Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc. (Hons), M.Sc. (Dist.), LL.B. (Hons), a Caribbean-based trade and development consultant. She writes and presents regularly on trade and development matters affecting the Caribbean and other small states. You can follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw. All views expressed on this Blog are Alicia's personal views and do NOT necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may from time to time be affiliated.

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