By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government is working “feverishly” to bring the Bahamas into compliance with its commitments to the European Union (EU) under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), having missed deadlines for the first two rounds of import tariff cuts.
Ryan Pinder, minister of financial services, told Tribune Business that complying with the EPA’s requirements for phased reductions in up to 85 per cent of Customs duty lines was not as simple as merely cutting tariffs to bring them into line with the required rates.
Pointing out that “most of the players” in the Caribbean were “in the same boat” as the Bahamas, namely having failed to meet the first two import tariff cut deadlines, Mr Pinder said it was a situation inherited from the former FNM administration.
He added that a new Tariff Bill, which when passed will facilitate the required rate reductions, was now “substantially complete”. The Government was also in the final stages of developing regulations that would enable it to implement the Customs Management Act, legislation that was passed - but never enforced - under the former Ingraham government.
Mr Pinder, who has ministerial responsibility for all trade matters, told Tribune Business: “We will become compliant with our EPA obligations once the Tariff Act is put in place, which hopefully will happen fairly soon.
“We have given a commitment to the EU in recent ministerial meetings that we are working towards implementing the necessary legislation to facilitate the tariff reductions on a phased basis, as required by the EPA.”
The second round of tariff/import duty liberalisation was supposed to happen this month, but the Bahamas and numerous other Caribbean nations have missed the deadline.
“It’s absolutely much more complicated and involved than merely cutting rates,” Mr Pinder told this newspaper. “It involves the preparation and drafting of a Tariff Bill that incorporates all the new Tariff Classification Codes for 2012, and working with Customs to ensure there’s understanding over the implementation.
“We have a new Tariff Bill in draft form that is substantially complete. We have been meeting with the Ministry of Finance and Customs on it. We are in contact with the Attorney General’s Office, and will hold further consultations with Customs in the coming weeks to clarify amendments to the legislation.
“We are advanced in that. We have given our commitment to the EU that we will be doing just what we’re doing.”
Conceding that the Bahamas had missed the first two tariff cut deadlines, Mr Pinder said only a handful of Caribbean nations were in compliance. Jamaica’s Cabinet, he added, had only met on the matter in recent weeks.
“We are behind, but most of the players are behind,” Mr Pinder told Tribune Business. “We’re all in the same boat. We are behind, but we met it behind when we came into office. We have started the process to pass a Tariff Act that is compliant and consistent with our obligations under the EPA. We are advancing that as quickly as possible on the legislative agenda.”
While unable to give a definitive date for when the Tariff Bill would be approved by the Cabinet to go to Parliament, Mr Pinder said the Government was moving numerous trade-related legislation forward, including a package of intellectual property rights (IP) Bills. Legislation for Sanitary and PhytoSanitary measures (SPS) is also in the pipeline, along with consultant-prepared ‘gap analyses’ for areas such as the Standards Bureau and a competition watchdog.
The Minister added that it was vital to implement the Customs Management Act, given that it contained the Rules of Origin regime that is critical to both the EPA and other rules-based trading regimes.
“We have been working feverishly with Customs and the Attorney General’s Office to bring regulations for the Customs Management Act into effect,” Mr Pinder told Tribune Business. “The regulations are substantially complete. We’re going through the technical consultations.”
The Minister criticised the former Ingraham administration’s “very limited state of readiness” over international trade and associated legislation, suggesting it was “unbelievable” that the Customs Management Act was passed without the accompanying regulations being ready.
He added that the IP legislation drafts inherited by the Christie administration had to be “substantially revised”, while the Tariff Bill and SPS legislation were initiated by the new government.
“We’ve been very aggressive and comprehensive in our legislative agenda to put in place all the measures necessary to leverage all the possibilities for Bahamians under the EPA,” Mr Pinder told Tribune Business.