By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government's pledge that it will not accept a "bad WTO deal" must be "the order of the day", the Chamber of Commerce's top trade executive urged yesterday.
Darron Pickstock, who heads the Chamber's trade and investment division, told Tribune Business that the promise by newly-appointed chief negotiator, Zhivargo Laing, was "refreshing" since it signals The Bahamas is not prepared to accept any price for full World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership.
He indicated, though, that Bahamian industries and individual businesses have no choice but "to get ready" for potential WTO impacts given the Minnis administration's determination to "forge ahead" and complete the long-running accession process by mid-2020 at latest.
Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, trade and industry and immigration, told a Sunday press conference to announce Mr Laing's appointment that The Bahamas had already submitted its goods and services "offers" to the WTO Secretariat - documents whose contents the private sector has yet to be briefed on, according to Mr Pickstock.
These "offers" set out The Bahamas' opening negotiating position on numerous issues, including market access for foreign firms and goods, plus the specific tariff lines that will be either eliminated, reduced or "exempt" from any WTO-related changes.
Still, Mr Pickstock said the Chamber would remain engaged with the Government as the WTO accession process, and related negotiations, prepare to intensify as a result of the Third Working Party meeting on The Bahamas' membership application on September 21.
He added that businesses were still seeking "clarity" on numerous WTO and trade-linked issues, including how the Government plans to replace the $100-$200m in Customs duties forecast to be lost as a result of eliminating import tariffs that rules-based regimes consider barriers to trade.
"It's extremely important we get this right, and get the best possible deal," Mr Pickstock told Tribune Business, emphasising that WTO membership terms will determine the Bahamian economy's future direction.
"I was encouraged to hear [Mr Laing] say yesterday that if the deal is not good they're not going to move ahead. It was refreshing, at least, to hear that they're going there with an open mind to get the best possible deal and, if they can't, there's no deal. We hope that's the order of the day."
Mr Pickstock confirmed that the Chamber planned to meet with the Government before its negotiating team heads to the WTO's Geneva headquarters for the Third Working Party meeting - the stage in the accession process that is typically the most crucial, since it provides the foundation for further bilateral talks with all countries interested in trading with the Bahamas.
Those countries would likely be the US, Canada, European Union (EU), China, the UK and other CARICOM countries, and Mr Pickstock said it was vital for the Government to fully brief the Chamber and business community on the Working Party meeting's outcome so they could properly advise its negotiators and prepare for the implications of full membership.
"The Chamber wants to know the process; what's going to happen from this point on, and we'd also want to want to know what they are going to be negotiating on our behalf," the Chamber trade division head added.
"It may not be the full details, but we'd want to know what's going to be discussed on the private sector's behalf, and the timelines, trigger points and trigger date just so we can bring some clarity."
Mr Pickstock, though, said the Government had "made it abundantly clear" - from the moment Mr Symonette revealed to Tribune Business in late 2017 it was aiming to complete the accession process in two years - that it saw full WTO membership as in the Bahamas' best interests, and a key element in its strategy to restructure and reposition the economy.
"The Government has made a move to go full steam ahead," he told Tribune Business. "We will be in constant dialogue with the Ministry and, at this point, we just have to get ready given that they have forged ahead, which was always their intention.
"We have to work with the Government to try and get the best possible deal given that the cart or horse is already out the gate. At this point it has to be that kind of relationship to advise the private sector and public sufficiently. We have to know what is happening, and we intend to work with them so that we are all on the same page.
"The Chamber had hoped to influence the process through all of the consultations that were had. That's what we sought to do, but it was abundantly clear wanted to finish the WTO process."
While many industries "still have concerns" about the potential effects of WTO membership, Mr Pickstock said the Government felt it had "gathered" sufficient information from the private sector to craft the offers it has submitted.
Mr Pickstock and other executives had previously warned that many Bahamian industries felt they lacked sufficient information to properly advise the Government on where it should "draw the red line" for their sectors in the WTO negotiations, meaning what this nation must not concede at all-costs.
Among the numerous uncertainties, the Chamber trade chief said yesterday, was how the Government plans to replace the tariff revenue that will be lost through the elimination of Customs duties that will be mandated by the body that oversees all rules-based trading regimes and their enforcement.
"The Minister has indicated they don't have a 100 percent handle on that, but they're looking into it," Mr Pickstock said, referring to Mr Symonette's confirmation that the amount of revenue foregone will ultimately be determined in negotiations.
"There's still an issue with replacement of revenue. Even if we trade off, and duty is reduced on one product line and it stays the same on another, there's still going to be a significant shortfall. There's still the issue of what it's going to be replaced with."