Final approval on membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as far as the interests of The Bahamas are concerned can only come by means of a consensus of the Bahamian people, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance the Rt. Hon. Hubert Ingraham said this week.

And that consensus, he pointed out, does not have to be arrived at by a referendum.

Mr. Ingraham touched on the WTO and relations with European Union during the 2008/2009 Budget Communication in the House of Assembly on Wednesday, May 28.

“The Minister of State for Finance, the Trade Commission, and the Ministry of Finance are providing extensive briefing on the issues involved,” Mr. Ingraham said. “We want the Bahamian public to be fully informed on the context of the crucial decision which will have to be made shortly.

“It is my Government’s considered opinion that entering into the WTO is a major step which we should be willing to consider.”

The Bahamas received Observer Status in the WTO in 2000 and applied for membership in the same in 2001.

Regarding the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union, Mr. Ingraham said the Minister of State for Finance, the Trade Commission and staff of the Ministry of Finance have “tried diligently” to provide the Bahamian public with comprehensive briefing.

“It is an issue on which we, as a democracy, shall take an informed decision and not one based on poor and misleading information,” he added. “My Government and its agencies will continue to work very hard to fully inform the Bahamian public and their parliamentary representatives before any final decisions are taken.”

Minister of State for Finance the Hon Zhivargo Laing, who has responsibility for trade matters, recently addressed the issue of the EPA signing during an interview with Bahamas Information Services.

“There has been no signing at all,” he advised. “So the agreement is not complete yet in terms of a signing. And even after the agreement is signed by all the countries there has to be a ratification process by each country; meaning that they have to go to parliament and pass an Economic Partnership Act” that would make this agreement valid in their country,” Mr. Laing said.

He explained that negotiations were ongoing between the European Union and CARIFORUM (Caribbean Forum of African, Caribbean and Pacific states), noting that only the CARIFORUM grouping concluded their negotiations by the December 2007 deadline.

“But there is this one exception, The Bahamas and Haiti were given six months beyond the deadline to provide their service offer,” Mr. Laing said. “So we did not agree to a services offer, we did agree with the overall goods offer that CARIFORUM has.”

By the end of May, the entire goods and services offer of The Bahamas would be made available to the public, Mr. Laing said.

The United Nations has about 155 codes it uses for various services, of which 133 The Bahamas is discussing with the European Union in terms of offer, he noted. In terms of services, there are two descriptions – None and Unbound.

“None means I have it open for non-Bahamian participation, that you can invest in that area. Unbound means closed to non-Bahamian investment,” Mr. Laing said.

He added, “Since straw vendors are categorised as retailers, that sector is Unbound; closed. There is no foreign investment coming into this area. This is the same for construction of any building up to 250 rooms.

“For the most part, what we have in The Bahamas is reserved for Bahamians in our economic partnership agreement offer. Whether that is wholesale or retail trade, whether that is real estate services, or whether that is inter-island transport services.

“In every way, we have sought to be sensitive to the peculiar needs of Bahamians and to preserve, for the most part, the same reservations that we had in this country for years for Bahamians.

Legal services, Mr. Laing advised, is also classified as Unbound.