An open European Union market and protections for its own are what Costa Rica will bargain for during the next round of negotiations on the Association Agreement between the European Union and Central America (AAEUCA).
Costa Rica released its national position on the negotiations Tuesday, in time for next week’s negotiations in Brussels, Belgium.
The country’s lead negotiator, Roberto Echandi, stressed that the document is only a starting point: It still has to be reconciled with the positions of the other Central American countries, which will be negotiating with the EU as a single entity.
Still, it gives a good indication of the goals of Costa Rica’s negotiating team, which, at over 100 members strong, will be the largest the country has ever sent to such a negotiation.
“This is the presentation round, when each party is going to put its cards on the table,” Echandi said.
Heading up Costa Rica’s wish list going into the negotiations is the goal of winning an open European market. Specifically, Costa Rica wants “treatment not less favorable than the most favorable treatment the EU grants” to imported goods.
At workshops that lasted all day Tuesday, Echandi spelled out the benefits such treatment would have for Costa Rica.
For one thing, they would bring a level of predictability to the business of exporting goods to EU countries, Echandi said. At the moment, though many Tico goods get preferential treatment under the EU’s System of General Preferences Plus, the benefits have to be renegotiated every three years.
Echandi said open access to EU markets would also increase Costa Rica’s trade diversity.
Today, almost half of Costa Rican exports go to the United States, and the majority of exports to EU countries are agricultural goods.
Costa Rica will go into negotiations proposing to gradually phase out its own trade barriers and requesting “recognition, on behalf of the European Union, of the asymmetries that exist between the two regions.”
Trade is only one of three “pillars” of the association agreement, the other two being political dialogue and “cooperation,” or EU development aid to Central America. In that first pillar, Costa Rica will come to the bargaining table with issues like democracy, peace, human rights and respect for international law on its agenda. The country will also be pushing disarmament and arms regulation, one of President Oscar Arias’ pet projects.
Echandi said an agreement with the EU on topics for political dialogue will set an agenda and create mechanisms for carrying it out.
As far as EU aid to Central America, Echandi said Costa Rica will be lobbying to change an aid culture that decreases donations to countries that get their acts together by growing their economies and decreasing poverty.
“It punishes the good students,” he said of the current model.
Costa Rica led the last round of negotiations, which took place in San José in October (TT, Oct. 26). This next round, leadership on the Central American side of the table will rotate to El Salvador.
Compared to the years-long process of negotiating the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), the EU agreement is slated to move ahead at breakneck speed.
Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruiz said the entire negotiation process will take a “minimum” of 18 months, with five rounds taking place this year and the fate of the agreement sealed by the first half of 2009.
Echandi said speed is of the essence, because after 2009, the EU will be going through internal changes, or become preoccupied with other trade negotiations.
“This means the EU could have lots of topics” distracting it, he said. “Small countries like us have to take advantage of the opportunity when large countries want to negotiate with us.”