January 30, 2008

Possible Case for the CCJ

Flour issue needs settled thoughts
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Source: Antigua Sun

Trade disputes are a real and expected eventuality of most regions in the world, especially where economies thrive.

We say this against the background of the obvious disagreements within the sub-region over the steep spike in flour as imposed by the Eastern Caribbean Group of Companies (ECGC), putting a heavy strain on those companies in Antigua and Barbuda that depend on the product and an even greater strain on consumers.

The product and its derivatives do indeed fall in the category of a staple here in Antigua and Barbuda as there is a heavy dependence by consumers. Nonetheless, the entire dispute may have gone the way of unfortunate, especially the turn it has taken as reported by Trade Co-ordinator Dr. Clarence Henry in the front page of the Antigua Sun of yesterday’s issue.

Now, as Dr. Henry has explained, options are being sought since the country is no longer prepared to accept the increase in cost that the ECGC is seeking to exact from the purchasers of the product throughout the region. The matter, Dr. Henry noted, could be taken as far as the Caribbean Court of Justice for settlement under its trade dispute jurisdiction or even the recently established Caribbean Community Competition Commission.

These institutions qualify as a sort of last resort entities when round the table negotiations prove futile. Now, Antigua and Barbuda is mulling the option of seeking settlement through a Caricom mediator because of the obvious void within the organisation of the OECS to deal with these realities of today. Issue can easily be made of the possibility that this is one of the areas where our leaders and the region have fallen out of step with the times. When Antigua and Barbuda presented its proposal, Dr. Henry noted, to be allowed to import 50 per cent of the 100-pound sacks of flour from medium developed countries in the region and sources outside the Caribbean, several of the OECS territories flatly rejected this idea.

The proposal from one territory was for the government to undertake the importation of the commodity. This of course would place an additional burden on the government’s already strained coffers and of course rob private sector interests of needed business.

Article 164 of the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, which governs Caricom, was another issue that was cited by at least one other territory. That country’s prime minister felt that the proposals by Antigua and Barbuda would serve to undermine the protection mechanism within the treaty for fledgling businesses in the region.

To his credit, Dr. Henry hit the proverbial nail on the head.

“These mills are being shielded by their governments and are attempting to hide under the cover of this OECS family,” Dr. Henry stated.

The question, is at what cost and for how long, does the region intend to stand behind these protective trade regimes in a market that is supposed to be growing and dynamic? Not saying that we ignore the treaties, laws and regulations that maintain balance and order, but at the same time consideration must be given to how policies affect the thousands of consumers whose spending allows big businesses like the ECGC to thrive.

A balance must be able to be struck and compromise must be embraced around the negotiation table. We would not want to see an important business go under, but at the same time, that same entity is in a much better position to withstand the shock of the changes on the world market than the ordinary man. We are pretty sure of this.

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