Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Editorial | Listen to Mr Ahmad, but be careful ...

Published:Tuesday | September 12, 2017 | 9:00 AM

We like the gung-ho terms in which Asif Ahmad, the new British high commissioner to Kingston, perceives the future of relations between Jamaica and the United Kingston, including the possibilities for trade in the post-Brexit period.

If we interpret Mr Ahmad correctly, in an interview with this newspaper, what Britain's disentanglement from Europe will mean is freedom to more robustly engage a country like Jamaica without the constraints which, he appears to believe, membership of the European Union imposes on London.

"It means that I can come and talk to your ministry here about the import of British meats," he said by way of example, while indicating that this wouldn't translate to a return to the old days for preferences such as Jamaica used to enjoy for sugar and bananas.

Nonetheless, Mr Ahmad added: "I think the politics of trade changed."

It will have, indeed. And as this newspaper has urged since the start of the Brexit process, it is urgent that Jamaica and its partners in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the wider CARIFORUM group clearly understand and plan for what is at stake. From our vantage point, crafting a new trade agreement, or, for that matter, a broader economic arrangement between Jamaica and the UK will not be as easy, or as clear-cut as Mr Ahmad seems to think it will be.

 

LACK OF CLARITY

 

In the first instance, not even the Brits are agreed on what they want Brexit to be, much less being clear on what the final product will look like, notwithstanding the recent coalescing by Theresa May's fractious Cabinet around the idea of being outside of the EU's customs union. Furthermore, as Michel Bernier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, has been telling David Davis, the UK's minister in charge of the process, there has to be agreement on Britain's divorce settlement before they move on to the nature and scope of the UK's post-Brexit relations with the EU.

Striking a trade deal with Jamaica won't be as complicated as going on with the EU but won't be without its complexities. First, a bilateral pact would be almost impossible unless Jamaica exits CARICOM, a customs union and single market roughly analogous to the EU, as well as CARIFORUM, a partnership between CARICOM and the Dominican Republic. CARIFORUM has a reciprocal free trade/economic partnership agreement (EPA) with the EU.

A post-Brexit UK will be outside of the EU-CARIFORUM pact, meaning that neither side will automatically have preferential access to each other's markets and would, therefore, be open for tariffs unless transitional arrangements are in place. Any new agreement with Britain would have to be with CARICOM or CARIFORUM, unless Jamaica opts for a bilateral deal, in which event, it would have to be careful that the terms of that arrangement do not violate its obligations, including CARICOM's common external tariff, to its regional partners.

Moreover, the CARIFORUM-EU EPA is more than a trade pact, but a broader regime that includes developmental support, to which Britain currently contributes, separately from its bilateral assistance to the region. Caribbean governments, including Jamaica's, will, in a post-Brexit environment, have to evaluate the worth of these arrangements in their disaggregated context and think carefully about how they might extract the greatest value as they are separately reconstructed.

In other words, Jamaica and the region have to pursue their best interests. In so doing, they have to tread carefully, Mr Ahmad's enthusiasm notwithstanding.