By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The June 2020 target for The Bahamas to become a full WTO member is “purely aspirational” and not one that must be met at all costs, a Cabinet minister confirmed yesterday.
Elsworth Johnson, newly-appointed minister of financial services, trade and industry and Immigration, told Tribune Business he had been advised even the World Trade Organisation (WTO) itself felt the accession timeline set by The Bahamas was “extremely rigid”.
The former minister of state for legal affairs, who now has ministerial responsibility for the WTO negotiations, pledged that The Bahamas would not become a member of rules-based trading’s global overseer if the terms “are not in the best interests” of the country.
Echoing the stance outlined by his predecessor, Brent Symonette, Mr Johnson added that the WTO accession negotiations will continue “at a pace that benefits the Bahamian populace” rather than being wedded to a concrete date by which they must be completed.
“What I would say is it’s a high priority item,” he told Tribune Business of the WTO talks. “I know there’s been some concern about the self-imposed - I wouldn’t call them fixed dates - for completion. It’s purely a target date.
“I had a conversation with the chief negotiator [Zhivargo Laing] and we agreed those dates are purely aspirational. I’m advised that the WTO thought the dates extremely rigid... We’re going to do what’s in the best interests of The Bahamas and continue the process at a pace that benefits the Bahamian populace.”
Mr Symonette, in revealing to Tribune Business in late 2017 that the Minnis administration had decided to complete The Bahamas’ accession to full WTO membership, said it was aiming to finish negotiations by December 2019. That would have allowed this nation’s joining to be ratified at the next full WTO meeting in June 2020.
The former Cabinet minister admitted then that this timeline was “ambitious”, and the sheer scope of the negotiations - as well as the extent of the legislative, regulatory and other reforms that The Bahamas needs to enact to make itself WTO compliant - have made a June 2020 deadline increasingly unlikely.
Mr Laing himself used his Guardian Radio program to recently suggest that The Bahamas was unlikely to meet the June 2020 deadline. He added that the process might take several more years to complete, and hinted the government was sensitive to the political implications given the level of opposition to joining the WTO from some elements in Bahamian society.
However, Mr Johnson yesterday said The Bahamas was now in its 18th year of seeking to move from “observer” status to full WTO membership, with the process having started under Mr Laing and the former Ingraham administration in 2001.
“For a country it’s a process, and we’re still navigating the process,” he said. “We appreciate the research by the Chamber of Commerce, the Oxford Economics report, which says it’s [WTO membership] not a panacea, a solution, for all the issues faced today.”
When pointed to the anti-WTO sentiments voiced from several quarters, Mr Johnson replied: “I don’t know that the opposition represents a large segment of the society. We have the Chamber of Commerce and a lot of professional groups giving their views on it, and some support it.
“I think we just have to manage this process through and, at the end of the day, make the right decision.” He promised that the Bahamas would not become a full WTO member if the Government thought the terms and likely impact unfavourable to the Bahamian economy, businesses and wider society.
“We have to decide if the best terms possible are in the best interests of The Bahamas,” Mr Johnson said. “If the best terms possible are not in the best interest of The Bahamas, the wise thing is not to join. We will not do anything that does not benefit the best interest of The Bahamas.
“The Prime Minister has mandated with this and all other matters that there ought to be consultation with civil society and the private sector so that what we get is a true representation of what the Bahamian populace wants. The Government is empowered to make a decision, but we want to know what the public - especially the ordinary, average, every day Bahamian - is thinking.”
The recent Chamber of Commerce-commissioned study by Oxford Economics argued that The Bahamas needed to undertake internal reforms for its own good, regardless of whether it becomes a full WTO member or not, and that such changes were critical to maximising the benefits from joining.
Besides improving the “ease of doing business”, and eliminating bureaucracy and red tape, such reforms include lowering the cost of electricity and improving its reliability; cheaper and easier access to credit; equipping Bahamian workers with the necessary 21st century skills to compete; and digitising government services for smoother interaction with the public.
Private sector executives and advocates for joining the WTO have already voiced fears that The Bahamas will lose “a desperately-needed reform catalyst” if the government decides the 2020 WTO target is unattainable, warning that “momentum” to implement the changes cited by Oxford Economics - regardless of whether The Bahamas joins the WTO or not - could now slow or be lost completely.
The Bahamas, though, still has to implement numerous legislative reforms such as overhauling its intellectual property rights regime; enacting competition legislation and creating a watchdog to oversee this; and a National Investment Act to translate existing policy into statute.
Besides its domestic agenda, The Bahamas also has to negotiate which import tariff rates it will lower - and by how much - and which industries will be opened to foreign competition with the WTO working party overseeing talks on its accession.
The Working Party consists of member states who have an interest in trading with The Bahamas. These include the likes of the US, Canada, the European Union (EU), China, the UK, members of CARICOM and, possibly, Latin American nations such as Brazil.