San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Leaders Agree on European Union Trade Talks: Rotating Structure Allows Each Region a Voice

After months of controversy, the Presidents of Central America announced a change of course Saturday during a joint press conference in San José regarding upcoming trade negotiations with the European Union. The countries will have their own negotiators and take turns selecting the regional representative at each round of talks – rather than relying on a single negotiator as the rest of the region had previously agreed.

The decision appears to represent a victory of sorts for President Oscar Arias, who, until recently, was the only leader advocating a rotating structure.However, the other heads of state in town for the last day of the XXI Central American Integration System Summit scrambled to deny that the resolution is a change of face, arguing the new scheme is more or less what they wanted all along.

“We maintained since the beginning that there should be a regional spokesperson,” Panamanian head of state Martín Torrijos told reporters at the Hotel Herradura, west of the capital. “The only (change) is that it will rotate.”

In various meetings during the past three months involving all the region’s Presidents except Arias, the leaders selected Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Norman Caldera as the region’s single negotiation coordinator.

Following the show of support for Caldera, Arias and Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno stated on several occasions that Costa Rica cannot be represented in trade negotiations by someone from another country, and that each country involved in the E.U. trade talks should have its own negotiator.

The leaders at Saturday’s conference refused to comment on how the change in plan had come about or how the negotiations among their countries took shape, despite multiple questions from the reporters about the reasons for the shift.

At the press conference, Salvadoran President Tony Saca outlined the new negotiation scheme. The group calling the shots during the negotiations with Europe, scheduled to begin in March, will be the region’s Intersectorial Council, made up of each country’s Foreign Relations Minister and either the Economy or Trade Minister.

Each country will also have two lead negotiators, one responsible for trade issues and one for politics and cooperation.

The spokesperson, a position each country will take turns filling during the expected 10-12 negotiation rounds, will transmit the decisions of the council to the E.U. negotiator.

What’s still uncertain is how the European Union, which has made it clear that advances in the Central American integration process are a prerequisite for negotiating an association agreement, which will include a freetrade agreement, will react to the decision.

Arias said he’s confident of E.U. support because the rotating structure allows each country to be represented but still gives the union a single Central American voice – as opposed to the negotiations for the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), for example, in which all the countries involved had their own representatives at the negotiating table.

In addition to Arias, Saca and Torrijos, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños – along with John Briceño, Deputy Prime Minister of Belize, and Rafael Alburquerque, Vice-President of the Dominican Republic – attended the summit. Their meeting Saturday was preceded by three days of talks among technical teams and ministers of Foreign Trade and Foreign Relations from the region.

Nicaraguan President-elect Daniel Ortega did not attend, but Arias said Ortega has agreed to the negotiation scheme.

Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruíz, who spoke to reporters at the Hotel Radisson Monday in San José, explained that each country’s nominated representative will serve for approximately four months. Like Arias, he said he’s confident the European Union will find the model “perfectly acceptable.”

“The European Union tells us they’re not interested in sitting down with five different countries,” he said, explaining the new model still meets that goal.

He said that for the Foreign Trade Ministry, it’s important that the Legislative Assembly approve CAFTA before the union and Central America begin negotiating the association agreement, because the ministry lacks the resources to see two agreements of such magnitude through their processes at the same time.

Ruíz added he hopes lawmakers will vote on CAFTA by April. Last week, the legislature’s International Affairs Commission voted to send the agreement to the main floor, where discussion is expected to begin  in January (TT, Dec. 15). E.U. negotiations are scheduled to start early next year.

No Consensus on Armies

A smiling Arias and jovial Saca did disagree once during the conference – not over the E.U. negotiations, but over arms control. When a reporter asked whether the Central American heads of state plan to reduce military spending in the region, Saca answered in the affirmative, but defended armies such as El Salvador’s as crucial to security.

“Armies contribute enormously to peace and stability,” Saca said, calling his country’s armed forces “small and professional,” a valuable resource in the fight against crime and in disaster relief. “It seems to me unfair to want to eliminate armies when they do extraordinary work.”

Arias then took the mic for “a few words.” He described the $500 billion spent on arms and soldiers worldwide as “immoral.”

He added that though terrorism is a real threat, “there are worse enemies, such as poverty.”

Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts in negotiating the Central American peace accords, has been advocating an international Arms Trade Treaty since the 1990s. During his trips abroad this year, he has worked to build support for his Costa Rica Consensus, through which developed nations would recalculate aid for developing countries based not only on their needs but also on how they allocate their budgets, increasing aid for countries that reduce military spending.

While the European Union was the top agenda item at the summit – keeping the Foreign Trade and Foreign Relations ministers negotiating until 11 p.m. Friday, followed by three hours of talks among the heads of state Saturday, according to the daily La Nación – leaders also discussed other aspects of regional integration such as the long-time-coming Customs Union, which would unify customs taxes within the region. The leaders “received with interest” a proposal to create an accounting authority to monitor SICA’s expenditures, using resources from each member country’s Comptroller’s Office.

When a reporter asked what the leaders have done to ensure the resolutions from their summits translate into action, rather than staying on paper, Zelaya responded that of 264 resolutions from integration summits, 134 have been carried out and the rest are “in the process of execution.”

Tico Times reporter Blake Schmidt contributed to this report.


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