By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
The government will not be held hostage to any deadlines or timelines for completing The Bahamas’ accession to full World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership, a Cabinet minister said yesterday.
Elsworth Johnson, pictured, minister of financial services, trade and industry and Immigration, indicated that the Minnis administration had not abandoned plans to accede to the WTO even though the effort appeared to have stalled last year.
Arguing that The Bahamas cannot afford “to remain on the sidelines” on discussions impacting global trade, Mr Johnson said this nation “must and should be present” even though it currently only has observer status with the WTO.
He reiterated that membership in the body overseeing the world’s rules-based trade must produce benefits for the Bahamian people and their economy, while acknowledging that this nation’s accession efforts were now entering their 20th year - thereby setting a record for the longest-running WTO accession.
“While the Minnis-led administration is committed to reforming the country’s trading regime and its laws, strengthening existing institutions or creating new ones to facilitate trade, strict timelines and meeting target dates are not the principle goals in this process,” Mr Johnson said.
“Paramount for this administration is the necessity to ensure that any trade negotiations that The Bahamas might be involved in are ultimately beneficial to the Bahamian people and the future development of The Bahamas.”
Mr Johnson’s “strict timelines” and “target dates” comments refer to the fact that the government had initially set year-end 2019 as the goal for completing negotiations for The Bahamas’ accession to full membership.
The accession was then supposed to be ratified by the WTO at its June 2020 plenary, but this timeline ultimately proved impossible to meet given both the extent of the negotiations and domestic opposition to joining the WTO.
Mr Johnson himself subsequently said that, as a result, The Bahamas will not become a full WTO member within the next five years, whereas Zhivargo Laing, the government’s chief WTO negotiator, suggested this might not happen within the next decade.
The minister yesterday, though, illustrated the dilemma now facing The Bahamas by suggesting this nation wants to influence the evolution of global trade rules even though its WTO observer status leaves it in no position to achieve this.
“It does not bode well for our small country to remain on the sidelines when decisions that can impact our country’s future development are being made,” Mr Johnson said. “We must find ways to participate in those discussions which will impact the international trading system and, by extension, our own country which is a part of that system.
“The Bahamas must, and should, be present and leading as discussions on such issues occur within international organisations tasked to address such issues.” He also acknowledged that the Oxford Economics report, commissioned by the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC), had set out a road map showing how WTO accession “can be used as a tool to lock in business friendly reforms, modernise the economy and unlock the country’s growth potential”.