By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas will only open up industries to foreign competitors under the WTO if doing so generates “real economic opportunities” for this nation, its chief negotiator asserted yesterday.
Zhivargo Laing, a Cabinet minister under the last two Ingraham administrations, told Tribune Business that the government will not retreat from the position that Bahamian-owned businesses must “at the very least still be competitive” with overseas rivals in any sector that is liberalised when this nation becomes a full World Trade Organisation (WTO) member.
He added that government, in partnership with the private sector, wanted to ensure all positions taken in the WTO accession talks are “both doable and winnable” and resulted in “net gains” for both particular industries and the wider Bahamian economy.
Speaking ahead of the government’s planned consultations this week with specific industries and their trade associations, Mr Laing emphasised that The Bahamas was entirely in control of its own fate in the negotiations to join global trade’s rules-setting body.
Reassuring that “nobody” can force The Bahamas to do anything, be it opening up specific services industries to foreign companies or cutting particular tariffs, Mr Laing said “it’s entirely up to us” how fast the negotiations proceed and whether this nation ultimately joins the WTO.
He revealed that The Bahamas’ fourth meeting with the WTO Working Party, made up of nations interested in trading with this country, has now been pushed back by a further month from March to April 2019.
The Working Party will negotiate the terms of The Bahamas’ accession, and the delay gives the government extra time to consult with the private sector and specific industries on how this nation should respond to the questions and requests prompted by its initial goods and services offers.
This week’s series of consultations are with services sectors that Working Party members identified in their initial responses, which likely means they want The Bahamas to further liberalise its position in these areas - possibly even opening up to the extent that it allows foreign firms to establish a physical presence in this jurisdiction.
The sectors meeting the Government this week to determine The Bahamas’ response, and the negotiating stance it should adopt ahead of the fourth Working Party meeting, are accounting and auditing services; engineering and architectural services; the construction industry; real estate; advertising and public opinion services; audio visual services; the Port Authority; wholesale and retail services (food and beverage); non-food wholesale and retail; and the auto industry.
Mr Laing yesterday confirmed the meetings will assess “the responses we’ve gotten from several countries as it relates to their particular sector, and how they think we ought to respond to these requests”.
The chief negotiator, who oversaw The Bahamas’ application for full WTO membership back in 2001, said the consultations reaffirmed his and the Government’s commitment to involve the private sector “at every stage of the process” given that it drives the country’s trade and will be most affected by the accession terms.
“We want to be able to have industry-agreed responses to whatever requests are made, and whatever offers we make. Every set of consultations is important,” Mr Laing told Tribune Business. “We are seeking to ensure that every position we take is both do-able and winnable in terms of gains for industry and the country. That’s really the bottom line.
“Our economy flourishes when our industry players flourish, and that’s both Bahamian businesses and non-Bahamian businesses we allow into the country to operate. We want to have negotiated positions that represent the best opportunity for our industry players.
“If there is an opening [of a particular industry] to be done, that has to be an opening that represents real economic opportunity for the country and represents an opportunity for our local businesses to, at the very least, still be competitive.”
Pledging that no Bahamian sector or businesses will be placed at an undue disadvantage, Mr Laing said this nation was in full control of its destiny in the WTO talks and could not be forced into any action that was against the national interest.
“What’s important for people to know is that openings are negotiated,” he explained. “Nobody imposes an opening. Nobody demands an opening. We either say no, concede, or offer an alternative. It’s entirely up to us. The reality is we are committed to walking these steps together with industry partners.”
Keva Bain, the acting director of trade, pledged to private sector participants in this week’s consultations that the Government would be as transparent as possible over the WTO negotiations and their progress.
She pointed to the disclosure of The Bahamas’ original goods and services offers as making good on this commitment, and said private sector feedback is “critical” if this nation is to craft the best possible counter to the Working Party group’s questions.
Ms Bain, in a letter seen by Tribune Business, wrote: “The revised offers signalled the country’s willingness to lower tariffs on certain goods and to liberalise certain services sectors with a view that undertaking such commitments would ultimately benefit the Bahamian economy and the Bahamian people.
“The Bahamas received feedback on its revised goods and services offer at the Third Working Party meeting on The Bahamas’ accession to the WTO held in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 2018..... In its ongoing efforts at transparency and ensuring the continued input of the private sector in this important process, the WTO negotiating team intends to discuss the feedback from WTO states regarding specific services sectors.”
Ms Bain said the fourth Working Party meeting had already been put back to mid to late March “at The Bahamas’ request to allow additional time for sector specific consultations on responses to our offer”. That date, Mr Laing confirmed yesterday, has now been pushed out to April.
“Your favourable response to this [consultation] is therefore critical as it would assist the negotiating team in formulating The Bahamas’ response to the requests received from WTO states to our revised offers,” Ms Bain told the private sector.