PNG has proposed a major shift to the way trade agreements are negotiated between the Pacific and Europe because it says “the Pacific” has lost trust in trade advisors from the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
The PNG move to shift responsibility for negotiations to another body based in Vanuatu has political implications and may open a backdoor for Fiji to rejoin trade negotiations, despite its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum.
Liam Cochrane of Radio Australia talked with Maureen Penjueli, Coordinator of the Pacific Network of Globalisation.
PENJUELI: It's quite clear that [the Pacific Islands Forum] membership has no confidence in the leadership that PIFS [Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat] is demonstrating at the moment. [A key issue is] the lack of confidence in PIFS, particularly in terms of its legal advice to the Island countries.
The second key issue in the PNG Paper has to do with the lack of trust in PIFS' ability to progress PACP trade interests. In the Paper it talks about conflict of interest, particularly by PIFS personnel who are leading the EPA negotiations… The last thing is the lack of clear direction on key issues that PNG would like to see progress.
COCHRANE: Maureen Penjueli says a key aspect of the breakdown of trust is the role of Australia, which, as the largest regional economy provides the most funding to the Forum Secretariat.
PENJUELI: We've seen commentators in the region talk about the increasing influence by Australia in particular in the running of the Forum Secretariat. And so these people articulate quite clearly that with the lack of confidence in PIFS, the OCTA is really the natural place to move EPA negotiations.
COCHRANE: OCTA, or the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser... is the alternative put forward by the PNG country paper. It's based in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila. But there's more to this than just trade. There's also the stoush between Fiji and its interim military leader Frank Bainimarama... and the opposing perspective of Australia and New Zealand which want to see fresh elections in Fiji.
In 2009, Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum, meaning that technically they are not invited to take part in the trade negotiations with the EU... despite being the Pacific's second largest economy. By shifting the management of the EU trade deals away from the Forum Secretariat and towards the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser... it could allow Fiji to return to the pan-Pacific trade talks table.
PENJUELI: If the OCTA is mandated by the trade ministers to take up EPA negotiations that would free up the Fiji question, because Fiji could be a member of the OCTA, and could report into that. And so it would resolve the conflict in terms of the Forum mandate, which excludes Fiji, and the OCTA would be one way to resolve that particular conflict.
COCHRANE: In a separate but perhaps linked move, Fiji put forward a proposal to rejoin the trade talks; a suggestion backed by almost all the Pacific nations involved - Samoa being the lone dissenter. As well as the size of Fiji's economy, there's another reason many want to see it involved with trade deal negotiations...
Fiji, along with Papua New Guinea have signed interim Economic Partnership Agreements that allow their canned fish and sugar products to be exported to Europe. In fact, fish are a key part of these talks with the EU. Pacific nations want to expand tariff-free status to frozen and fresh fish, a tricky prospect for the EU, which is already under pressure to protect its own tuna industry.
But Maureen Penjueli says the PNG Paper means that for now any real progress on fish, frozen or otherwise, will mostly likely be on ice.
PENJUELI: I think you will find that because the countries have this lack of confidence in the mediation which if PIFS, that a lot of this will be put on hold until the political nature of who is going to lead the EPA negotiations is resolved.