By Fay Simmons
Tribune Business Reporter
A Cabinet minister yesterday reaffirmed that becoming a full World Trade Organisation (WTO) member is not a priority for The Bahamas at present although such a move is "not off the table."
Senator Michael Halkitis, minister of economic affairs, speaking at the unveiling of the Government's National Trade Policy, said that joining the world's rules-based trading watchdog is "not at the forefront" the Davis administration's plans.Reiterating that the Government will not push for full WTO membership unless such a move has majority support among the Bahamian people, he said: “We have to look at our policy holistically and so, while it's not off the table, it's not at the forefront of what we seek to do.
“A big part of our mission is education, and so this trade unit, this ministry, this government will not be pushing WTO on to anybody. A big part of our mission is to educate people about the potential advantages, and then should that be what the people decide to do, then we’ll go.”
Mr Halkitis also repeated concerns he previously voiced that, by becoming fixated on the question of whether The Bahamas should become a full WTO member, there as a danger that the Government's broader trade focus could be derailed - and become lost - in the emotive debate that often erupts over the issue.
“When it comes to the WTO, I believe we are the only country in the Western Hemisphere who are not members of the WTO," he acknowledged. "We understand that when you talk about trade, people talk about WTO and then, all of a sudden, it becomes very emotive and then the debate gets lost.
"What we realise is, as we pursue this now and implementation of this National Trade Policy, it's very important for us, number one, to take advantage of the arrangements that we are already in. And number two, there are many remaining preparatory steps that we need to take in terms of eventual accession to WTO should we decide to do that.
“Talking about things like strengthening our intellectual property regime to protect creatives, making sure we continue to develop our system of standards, and then we can talk about the WTO.”
The Bahamas’ stop-start effort to become a full WTO member this now spans more than two decades, having begun in 2021, and is likely to be among the longest - if not the longest-ever - accession process. The country, though, still has observer status with the world's overseer and standard-setter for rules-based trading regimes.
The prospect of full WTO membership has often been viewed negatively by many in the private sector, who perceive that the accession terms will force The Bahamas to open up multiple industries to foreign competitors with superior economies of scale and access to capital, thus putting local companies out of business. There is no guarantee that this would be the outcome, though, and trade advocates say that such fears are massively overblown.
Mr Halkitis yesterday said the National Trade Policy seeks to address four key challenges - limited exports; high imports; a lack of export diversification; and low production capacity and a lack of competitiveness.
“What's important to us first of all is the fact that The Bahamas is already a member of trade agreements, the EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement) with the European Union, and as well developing one with the UK, Canada and the US [through] CARIFORUM," he added.
"So we are members of these trade agreements. Unfortunately we do not take sufficient advantage of those memberships. The second point we need to bear in mind is we need to disabuse ourselves of the fact that when we talking about trade we only talking about a one-way street; things coming in.
“Four key elements that we're seeking to address are we don't export enough; we export very little, and what we export is confined to spiny lobster, drugs in terms of pharmaceuticals, polystyrene foam out of Grand Bahama and then salt. Those are the top four, so very narrow and very small. We need to increase the amount of exports, we need to reduce the amount of imports, we need to empower our local businesses and so those will be the thrust of this trade policy.”
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