Andy-Johnson-Columnist-use

During an exit interview in early August, I asked the outgoing head of the European Union (EU) delegation in Port of Spain for his description of relations between Caribbean countries and the EU.

Part of his answer is as follows: “I think that generally speaking we have a good relationship, we are all partners and signatories to the ACP partnership agreement which defines our relationship from a legal perspective, and that includes political, trade, also development co-operation, and I think it also signifies that we have common understanding about a number of key principles related on the functioning of democracy, the rule of law, human rights issues as well. I think it is a good starting point, I think we are like-minded in many respects.”

But, he said there are some irritants in the relationship, as have been reported in the media over tax governance issues and money laundering, and there are some financing regimes to which a number of Caribbean countries have been listed by the EU and that has raised some comments on the part of the countries concerned. He said he didn’t think they were enough to be tarnishing or jeopardising the relationship, but they clearly need to be discussed towards finding a way forward through dialogue and engagement.

I raised with him the public objection from the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, after the Caricom summit in 2019, against the existence of the Blacklist. So, given what he’d said there, how are these matters being addressed?—I asked.

He said clearly the starting point is that Trinidad and Tobago, like the EU member states, and the Commission as well, are members of international agreements. So that T&T is a member of the Global Forum for transparency and accountability for the purposes of tax issues and the same way a number of the arrangements relating to base erosion and profit sharing, which are linked to taxation issues. Likewise, they are members like the EU of the Financial Action Task Force. And it’s through those four agreements that they are committed to meeting commonly established standards. And it’s on that basis that the EU is making assessments and then comes to a position whereby it considers that perhaps not all the criteria are met and they have then established a blacklist, as people like to call it, but it is a list of high-risk countries for financial transactions, and basically, it is meant to inform the financial institutions in the EU that if there are transactions with the countries concerned, they have to do a bit more due diligence. But there are no sanctions linked to it at all.

“So, the countries are aware of the requirements, etc. What is important is that there is a genuine, a good dialogue taking place, and that’s something that we have been trying to promote over the past couple of years, when the listings became public, to make sure that both from the Trinidad side and from the EU side there is engagement also at the technical level, to discuss what measures could be adopted and if measures are being taken, either in the form of action plans or policy reform or the legislative proposals, that are discussed and then people can see to what extent they can address the outstanding issue. So, it’s a question of discussing points where we have a certain level of disagreement but identifying a way forward.”

But something appears clearly not to be working. In a story datelined Georgetown, and carried in the local press on October 11, Caricom countries were reported as having condemned the latest EU blacklisting strategy. The story says the latest development underscores what Caricom describes as the EU’s unwillingness to take into account the substantial progress made by member states at compliance with global standards.

These Caricom member states complained that the revised blacklisting, if we can call it a revision, has placed an added burden on them, as a result of what they define as “discriminatory tactics disguised as tax policy and governance”.

Caricom countries are described as having strategic deficiencies in our national anti-money laundering and counter-financing of terrorism regimes, which pose significant threats to the EU’s financial system.

To date, however, there has been no official response to a request I’ve made for feedback from the EU delegation in Port of Spain to this loud regional protest. Part of the reason for this is that there has been no official replacement in the position of head of the delegation.

But making a revelation on deep background, a source in a position to know the innards of this working relationship has pointed to a less-than-enthusiastic embrace, at least between the Government in Port of Spain and the delegation. A lot of money is left on the table, it has been disclosed, in project funding available to T&T. This is compared with the relationship between Port of Spain and Beijing or Washington. Among other things, the EU is said to be disappointed with the administration’s position of neutrality regarding the ongoing and worsening situation in Venezuela. That’s a story for another day, but for the time being, we need to navigate the widening gulf on the issue of the blacklisting, against the stubborn appearance of money laundering, and tax governance weakness.

• Andy Johnson is a veteran journalist

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