By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE private sector was yesterday urged to make its voice heard in two weeks' of upcoming WTO meetings, amid warnings that non-collaboration has "always proven to be a disaster".
Darron Pickstock, who heads the Chamber of Commerce's trade and investment division, told Tribune Business it was "very, very, extremely important" that all businesses and industries use the April 16-May 3 meetings to submit their concerns and recommendations to the Government.
He emphasised that these private sector 'positions' would be critical in informing the Government's opening 'offer' for the Bahamas' accession to full World Trade Organisation (WTO), setting the platform for this nation's 'terms of entry' - including reservations and exemptions.
The Bahamas will have to negotiate with other WTO members which industries are opened up to foreign competitors, and to what extent, and Mr Pickstock warned private sector input on such issues was vital to prevent the Government from agreeing anything unfavourable to local entrepreneurs.
"What we're doing is reaching out to our members and collaborating with regard to getting the industry groups on board," he said of the meeting. "Quite frankly, it's a short period in space and time to get these guys galvanised.
"It's in these briefings and consultations that the business community will be able to get their concerns out. This is a negotiating process, and they have to tell the Government exactly what they are prepared to give up and not give up.
"I said to the Government: What people don't understand, naturally they will reject. We have to explain in the simplest possible form what is happening."
The Bahamas has to negotiate its terms of accession to the body that sets global trade's rules with a 'working party' of its members. This will be formed from all the countries that have an interest in trading with this nation, such as the US, Canada, European Union, China, UK, fellow Caribbean states and possibly the likes of Brazil and Latin America.
It will be down to the skills of the Bahamas' negotiators to obtain the best possible terms, but Mr Pickstock warned they can only achieve this if armed with what the private sector is seeking to meet its needs and properly position the economy.
Officials from the WTO Secretariat were in the Bahamas two weeks ago to explain the accession process and what's required, as this nation bids to complete its full membership by end-2019.
Recalling those meetings, Mr Pickstock said: "People had questions, they had concerns, but ultimately they seemed to be in favour of WTO accession as long as the Government is prepared to hear what they are prepared to accept or not accept. "What that's saying to me is they [the private sector] want a seat to at the table with them [the Government].
"That's the purpose of these consultations and they will be extremely important.
"Their concerns, or whether it's recommendations or whatever, coming out of these meetings will be wrapped up in what the Government presents when it negotiates on a bilateral or multilateral basis. It's important for the business community to say to the Government: This is what we want you to take to the table for the first round of negotiations."
The Bahamas' WTO accession negotiations will then kickstart, with offers sent back and forth to and from the 'Working Group'. "The Government doesn't trade," Mr Pickstock reiterated to Tribune Business of the consultations set to begin next week.
"It's the only way the Government knows what the concerns are if they hear from the business community.
"It would be very concerning to go down this road and not hear from the business community.... We don't want a position where the Government goes ahead and negotiates on behalf of the private sector without hearing its concerns and recommendations, and then presents it with something. That's always proven a disaster."
As an example Mr Pickstock, a partner at the Glinton, Sweeting & O'Brien law firm, said the Bar Association had already rejected the notion of opening up the legal profession to foreign attorneys and firms pre-WTO.
This issue, he added, would "raise its head again" now. Mr Pickstock said one way around it would be to reserve certain segments of the legal services market, such as real estate, which he described as "the bread and butter", for Bahamians.
The Government, in a questionnaire for goods providers, justified its WTO membership drive as essential to improving the Bahamian economy's openness and competitiveness, thus repositioning it for greater growth.
It added that full WTO membership would protect Bahamian goods and services exports from protectionist policies, such as tariffs, that other countries can currently impose to deny them access to overseas markets without consequence.
This, in turn, would "unlock" Freeport's potential while ending the Bahamas' isolation as the only western hemisphere nation that is not a WTO member.
"The Government considers it important to create a more open and competitive economy in order to enable Bahamians to compete successfully in today's global environment. Membership in the WTO is an important tool that can play a key role in achieving this goal," the questionnaire said. "The Bahamas is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that is not currently a member of the WTO. This means that unless we sign a trade agreement with the countries that we trade with, they are free to impose any trade barriers that they wish against Bahamian goods and services, even if those trade barriers are contrary to WTO rules.
"For example, the largest importing country of Bahamian lobster could decide to increase the import duties on Bahamian lobster, making it less competitive on that market. This could have potentially devastating consequences for the local fishing industry. If the Bahamas were a member of the WTO, this would not be permissible since the WTO rules are essentially legal contracts that bind governments to keep their trade policies within agreed limits."
The Government added: "Additionally, the full potential of Freeport as the nation's manufacturing, assembly and transhipment hub cannot be unlocked if Freeport-based exporters are exposed to the possibility of foreign countries making their exports uncompetitive through the imposition of trade barriers, including high duties.
"As a non-member of the WTO, Bahamian businesses cannot take advantage of the benefits afforded by the WTO system including secure and predictable access to foreign markets, both in the goods and services sectors."