Ministers set FTAA start date for 2006

by Gustavo Gonzalez

Buenos Aires, 7 Apr 2001 (IPS) -- A meeting of Western Hemisphere trade officials concluded Saturday in the Argentine capital with a recommendation of a 1 January 2006 effective date for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), once the treaty is ratified by the parliaments of the 34 counties involved.

An official from Argentina’s Foreign Ministry said this decision implies that FTAA talks will draw to a close one year earlier, 1 January 2005, leaving a full year for the document signed by the hemisphere’s presidents to go through the approval process in the national legislatures.

The date of 1 Jan 2006 for FTAA to enter into force, and negotiations to go on till 1 January, 2005 is a setback for the US drive, supported by Chile, to accelerate the negotiations and conclude them in 2002.

The region’s trade ministers this weekend approved the foundations of the FTAA, producing a draft agreement that the heads of state are to assess at the Summit of the Americas in the Canadian city of Quebec on 20-22 April.

The ministerial meeting also established the FTAA’s route for the next 18 months, a period in which Ecuador will hold the presidency of the process, and negotiators are to work through the list of products and services targeted for zero tariffs within the framework of a hemispheric trade treaty.

The role of labour and environmental issues in the future accord, as well as the relationship between the treaty and national laws, represented difficult discussions that ended in consensus after four days of meetings at the technical and political levels.

One essential principle the ministers adopted indicates that the 34 countries can present proposals about labour and environmental issues during the course of negotiations, but if they do not achieve consensus they will be eliminated from the final FTAA treaty.

The ministers, however, rejected a motion according to which the agreements in the construction of the FTAA cannot contradict the national laws of the participating countries. The trade officials agreed that such a condition would lead to the paralysis of the negotiating process.

If that principle were to be accepted, said one negotiator, it would mean upholding, for example, the validity of US anti-dumping laws, which often translate into non-tariff barriers on Latin American exports to that country.

It was precisely non-tariff trade barriers that proved to be a major sticking point during the Buenos Aires ministerial meeting. The Brazilian and other Latin American delegations insisted that Washington agree to revise its trade norms and procedures that in practice constitute this type of trade barrier.

Canadian International Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew, introduced proposals on the final date for negotiations and the timeline for trade liberalisation, putting an end to the controversy surrounding deadlines for the negotiation and creation of the FTAA.

The ministers approved the motion, which states that “in light of the advances achieved in the negotiation process,” it is recommended that the Summit of the Americas adopt guidelines to ensure that such negotiations conclude by 1 January 2005, the deadline originally established at the second summit of presidents, held in Santiago in 1998.

The Canadian proposal also exhorts the hemisphere’s presidents to push for the FTAA “to enter into effect as soon as possible,” suggesting that the region’s parliaments are to ratify the treaty during the course of the year 2005.

The document acknowledges, however, that based on the region’s systems of representative democracy, with separation of powers, governments are not in a position to impose deadlines on their parliaments. Therefore, 1 January 2006 represents a goal for FTAA implementation but not a solid commitment.

The heated debate during recent months about the deadline for ending FTAA negotiations began to cool down after Chile’s Foreign Minister, Soledad Alvear, affirmed that her country was interested in the “effective culmination” of talks by 2005.

This week’s ministerial meeting had been conditioned from the beginning on a Chilean proposal to push up the negotiation deadline to 2003, an idea that had the backing of Canada, the United States and some Central American countries.

Alvear, in a press conference held at the Chilean embassy in Buenos Aires, stressed the need for the region’s parliaments to ratify the FTAA treaty in the course of 2005.

“We believe that the proposal (of the presidents) must be presented to our parliaments and negotiations ended in late 2004 or early 2005. We hope that we can achieve, to the extent possible, that within 2005 the parliaments approve it,” she stated, even before the issue had been resolved at the conference site.

The meeting of ministers established a deadline of April 2002 for presentations on the lists of products and services to be considered for tariff liberalisation, taking into consideration the interests of the hemisphere’s smallest economies.

With these agreements in hand, the negotiating process is expected to make significant progress in the next 18 months, now under the presidency of Ecuador, as the Buenos Aires conference marked the end of Argentina’s turn at the helm. .

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