By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Bahamas' accession to full World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership will "not get done" without the aggressive 2019 deadline imposed by the Government.
Mick Holding, the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce's president, told Tribune Business that setting such a timeline was the only way the Minnis administration can ensure the Bahamas completes the world's longest-running accession. Arguing that 2019 was "doable" if the Government and private sector demonstrated the necessary reforming will, Mr Holding said he believed the Bahamas was "better off in than out" when it came to becoming a WTO member.
Backing the accession intentions, the GB Chamber president said it would also force the Bahamas to "tighten up the rules" surrounding how commerce and trade is conducted in this nation - something he also described as a positive. "Broadly speaking, we are supportive of the accession to WTO," Mr Holding told this newspaper of the Government's strategy. "It's one of these cases: Are we better off in than out, and I think we're better off in than out.
"The country has been at this since 2001, when it became an 'observer' [at the WTO], and because this thing has been going on for so long, with different governments coming in and out, if it's going to be achieved an aggressive timetable is probably necessary otherwise things don't get done.
"It looks aggressive, sounds aggressive but it's  doable if there's a will."
The Bahamas is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere to remain outside the WTO, which is the body that sets the rules for global trade. Many, including Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, trade and industry and Immigration, argue that the Bahamas cannot afford to be isolationist - especially given its small, open economic model. The Bahamas first signalled its intention to become a full WTO member in 2001, but successive governments since have not treated the issue as a priority. The Minnis administration, though, has taken a different stance, taking a Cabinet decision last October to try and complete the accession process by next year and signalling these intentions to the WTO Secretariat.
Mr Holding acknowledged that "the devil is in the detail" when it comes to the Bahamas negotiating the terms of its WTO membership, with much depending on the skills of its negotiating team - headed by Raymond Winder, Deloitte & Touche (Bahamas) managing partner, and former director of trade, Viana Gardiner.
He added, though, that he was unable to detail the specific economic growth opportunities that WTO may bring as himself and other members of the Government-appointed Trade Commission were still identifying these.
"That's something we're currently working on," he told Tribune Business. "I'll be working on it this weekend to identify that. I'm doing that in conjunction with three other Trade Commission members."
Mr Holding, though, said the WTO accession process itself would force the Bahamas to overhaul and modernise its economy - especially the rules and regulations governing commerce - which he described as a positive development.
The regulations that will enable the Government to enforce an upgraded intellectual property rights regime have been issued for consultation, and the GB Chamber chief identified a slew of new laws that the Bahamas will need to enact to pave the way for WTO membership.
Among these are a Competition (Antitrust) Bill; a Foreign Investment Bill; and likely a National Investment Act that takes current policy into statute, which is something demanded by rules-based trading bodies such as the WTO.
"There are a lot of areas the Bahamas needs to tighten up on," Mr Holding told Tribune Business, "and a lot of legislation is in draft, has recently been drafted or is yet to come that tightens up on the rules and regulations around the business environment and trade.
"Intellectual property is just one area. The other areas we're looking at, just in terms of that; the tightening up of regulations, is in my mind a positive thing. There are copyright regulations, trademarks, standards regulations, a Competition Bill, Foreign Investment Bill, these types of things.
"There's quite a lot of legislation that will need to go through before we get to the accession, and if that tightens up and regulates the environment, that in itself is a good thing. It's going to be a very long year, no doubt."
Mr Holding said "one of the major things" that will command the GB Chamber's attention is the impact full WTO membership will have on Freeport and its status as a free trade zone (FTZ) under the Hawksbill Creek Agreement.
"Within the 164 countries who are currently members of the WTO, there are countries in there that do have free trade zones," he added. "It isn't as if you can't have a free trade zone and be a member of the WTO. That isn't the case.
"It's a matter of going through the details of all that. It will be one of the principal areas of focus for the Grand Bahama Chamber."
Mr Holding said the GB Chamber would seek to act as a 'bridge' between its members and the Government, the latter's negotiators and the Trade Commission, providing two-way feedback on the negotiating positions the private sector wants the Bahamas to adopt and the Minnis administration's strategic direction.
"We're all going through a bit of a learning curve," he added. "It's not a simple process. It's a complex process. At the moment we see no major disadvantages at all.
"We just need to make sure we have the right level of protection for business. I'm not talking about trade barriers; it's quite legitimate for countries in the WTO to have tariffs. It's a matter of saying which parts of our economy need to be protected, and what parts will benefit from opening up. That's what we have to go through."