With the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May due to formally begin the Brexit process by making the Article 50 notification this Wednesday (March 29), it is worth considering what are the possible options for future Caribbean trading relations with post-Brexit “Global Britain”. Moreover, should one of the options be participation in a Commonwealth-wide free trade agreement (FTA)?
UK-CARICOM Trading Relations
The UK and the Commonwealth Caribbean have a shared and close relationship which goes beyond historical, cultural and diplomatic ties. While Commonwealth Caribbean countries’ trade with the United States dwarfs trade with the UK, the latter remains the region’s largest trading partner within Europe. Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Member States, as part of the CARIFORUM (CARICOM plus the Dominican Republic), enjoy preferential access to the UK market under the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) signed in October 2008.
As the EU agreements to which the UK is currently part will cease to apply to the UK once it has completely withdrawn from the EU, here is what CARICOM/CARIFORUM will losing preferential access to (a) the world’s fifth largest economy (or sixth largest according to some reports), (b) a market of over 64 million people which includes a Caribbean diaspora population whose potential demand for Caribbean goods and services and as a source of diaspora investment still remains largely under-exploited, and (c) a trading partner with a shared language, shared culture and shared values and a common law legal system which brings a level of assurance and certainty for cross-border commerce.
Merchandise trade aside, the UK is an important source of tourist arrivals for many Caribbean countries, while in Barbados, for example, British high net worth individuals (HNWIs) are the largest buyers of luxury real estate on the island, making the UK the largest source of real estate foreign direct investment (FDI) into the island.
Whilst the UK cannot formally commence negotiations with third States until it has left the EU, the May Government has reportedly already begun preliminary informal trade talks with some States. Indeed, several countries around the world, including Commonwealth states like Australia, Canada and India have lined up in hopes of being among the first negotiate post-Brexit trade agreements with the UK. Here in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic has also signalled its interest in a post-Brexit UK-DR FTA as the UK is apparently the Dominican Republic’s fastest growing market for Dominican exports according to the statement made by the DR’s Ambassador to the UK.
To this point, it is heartening to note that Prime Minister May has bucked the protectionist trend and intends to expand the UK’s trading relations around the world under her “Global Britain” banner. Indeed, Mrs. May argued that one of the compelling reasons for Brexit was so Britain would be free to expand its trade with the rest of the world on its own terms. The door is clearly open to the region for dialogue.
Possible Options for post-Brexit UK-CARICOM/CARIFORUM Relations
As I see it, the possible options for post-Brexit UK-CARICOM/CARIFORUM trading relations are as follows:
- Interim Arrangement which preserves EPA-level concessions before an FTA can be negotiated
- Negotiation of a UK-CARICOM or UK-CARIFORUM FTA
- Commonwealth FTA
- Most Favoured Nation (trading under WTO rules)
The Commonwealth Advantage?
This discussion is even more interesting in light of what is clearly a Commonwealth pivot by the UK government as it seeks to map its future trade policy and relations. Most CARICOM countries are member states of the 52-member Commonwealth of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation which consists primarily of former British colonies and current dependencies spanning Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.
The Commonwealth is not a trade bloc. However, despite the absence of a Commonwealth FTA, intra-Commonwealth trade and investment flows are substantial and growing. According to a 2015 report released by the Commonwealth, not only is “trade between Commonwealth members on average 20 per cent higher and trade costs are 19 per cent lower compared with in trading between other partners”, but intra-Commonwealth trade is expected to reach 1 trillion by 2020. The Secretariat’s International Trade Policy section also publishes very timely and insightful research on trade matters. A good example is this brief which was part of the Meeting documents.
However, despite this, Commonwealth Trade Ministers have not met frequently. This is why the Inaugural Commonwealth Trade Ministers Meeting two weeks ago was such a momentous event. From all reports the meeting was not only well-attended but the ministers discussed prospects for deepening intra-Commonwealth trade and investment ties using the “Commonwealth Advantage”. Inter alia, Ministers directed the Secretariat to “develop pragmatic and practical options to increase Commonwealth trade and investment”, to regularise and institutionalise Trade Minister meetings, and to cooperate on the implementation of the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement.
The prospect of a Commonwealth-wide FTA has been floated informally, although it does not yet appear to be a firm policy proposal. The arguments for a Commonwealth FTA include a ready market of over 2.4 billion people yoked by a shared language and history, common principles and values, respect for the rule of law, the common law legal system, all of which form part of the “Commonwealth Advantage”. Additionally, it is argued by proponents of a pan-Commonwealth FTA that the potential for even greater intra-Commonwealth trade and investment should be harnessed as a buttress against rising protectionism and slowing global trade which are potentially harmful for Commonwealth developing States.
To be sure, the Commonwealth brings important value for the Caribbean. It has, for example, developed a strong small states agenda, which is not surprising given that thirty-one of its member States are small States. As an illustration, the Commonwealth launched the Commonwealth Small States Trade Finance Facility in 2015. Moreover, the fact that the current Secretary-General, Dame Patricia Scotland QC, is a daughter of the soil is also an advantage for the region.
There is also, of course, merit to fomenting closer commercial and political ties with fellow Commonwealth countries as some of the more developed Commonwealth countries are part of influential fora like the Group of 20 (G20), Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) where Commonwealth Caribbean countries are not represented. This is doubly important in light of the on-going slowdown in global trade flows, an apparent retreat from multilateralism and rising protectionism. Moreover, Commonwealth Caribbean countries have been seeking to diversify their trading partners, including source markets for tourism, foreign investment and international business and deepening ties with the rest of the Commonwealth could be useful.
Nonetheless, while I have not done any econometric analysis on what would be the possible economic and welfare benefits of any Commonwealth FTA for CARICOM/CARIFORUM, given the length of time it may take to negotiate a Commonwealth FTA, the varying levels of development, the differences in economic profile, and the diverse offensive and defensive interests of the various Commonwealth Member States which will need to be managed, the negotiation of a Commonwealth-wide FTA will not be an easy task. Therefore, I submit that the Caribbean region’s interests will, at least in the short to medium term, be better served by either negotiating an interim arrangement with the UK which preserves EPA-level concessions until an FTA can be negotiated or negotiating an FTA with the UK straight off the bat.
So what should a possible UK-CARICOM/CARIFORUM take into account?
CARICOM countries have limited experience in negotiating FTAs with developed countries. So far the EPA is the region’s only completed FTA with a developed partner, as the Canada-CARICOM negotiations are currently in abeyance. Perhaps, fortuitously, the UK has even less experience with negotiating trade agreements, as trade negotiations have hitherto been handled exclusively by the European Commission, pursuant to the EU’s common commercial policy. So both parties, despite the power asymmetry, will be on a learning curve.
Commitments made under any prospective UK-CARICOM/CARIFORUM free trade agreement should take into account the sustainable development and economic growth needs and interests of both parties in a mutually beneficial way, while also taking into account differential levels of development among CARICOM/CARIFORUM countries.
CARICOM/CARIFORUM countries will also want at least the same level of concessions for their service suppliers, particularly in Mode 4 (Presence of Natural Persons) which has been the mode of supply which is the least liberalised. Additionally, as capital-importing States, CARICOM/CARIFORUM countries will likely wish to negotiate an investment chapter which protects, promotes and liberalises investment between CARICOM/CARIFORUM and the UK for the mutual development of both parties.
Of course, stakeholder consultations with not just the private sector but also civil society and citizens at large should continue to inform the region’s negotiating positions, including whether there is actually the need for an UK-CARICOM FTA and what are the region’s offensive and defensive interests.
FTA negotiations can take several years. The EPA negotiations, for instance, had been launched in April 2004 and the Agreement was not signed until October 2008. Therefore, unless a WTO-compatible interim arrangement could be negotiated whereby the UK agrees to continue EPA-type concessions to the region until a UK-CARICOM/CARIFORUM FTA is negotiated, it is possible that UK-CARICOM/CARIFORUM trade relations may revert to MFN conditions. Even so, while the UK is also a WTO member in its own right, its schedules are part of the EU’s which means the country will have to work out its own tariff schedules under the WTO post-Brexit. Additionally, WTO MFN conditions will not afford CARIFORUM countries the level of market access, especially for their service suppliers in the UK market, that they currently enjoy under the EPA.
Although the argument is often rightly made that the Caribbean region will be at the low rung of the negotiation priority ladder, I believe that the region cannot sit idly by as the clock begins ticking come Wednesday. While other major countries have begun to erect barriers, the May Government’s “Global Britain” outlook is a welcomed open door for the region. We should at least signal to the May government our interest in beginning talks on cementing a mutually beneficial UK-CARICOM/CARIFORUM trading arrangement post-Brexit, and take steps to do the ground work for such an eventuality.
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. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.