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Lebanon presses bid to join WTO amid political instability

USAID and Lebanon’s Chamber of Commerce host a panel at the Habtour Hilton Hotel in Sin al-Fil, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: As Lebanon continues its relentless bid to join the World Trade Organization, it is struggling to bring its laws and regulations up to international standards that would allow it to qualify for the 157-member club while protecting its own businesses. USAID and Lebanon’s Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel Thursday evening at the Habtour Hilton Hotel in Sin al-Fil to discuss and analyze the Lebanese regulations that aimed at speeding up the country’s accession to the highly coveted WTO.

The panel also assessed the benefits Lebanon would reap from joining the WTO and how it would impact quality control and intellectual property.

“The government has the enabling role to make sure the legal framework and regulations are equitable and enforced,” said Heath Cosgrove, director of economic growth, water and environment at USAID, which over the past three years has assisted Lebanon in working toward integration into the multilateral trading system.

“Even small countries like Lebanon can play on a level playing field with larger countries,” he added.

The agency presented the Chamber of Commerce with a regulatory impact analysis tool that measures the regulatory system, a comprehensive way of assessing the legal and economic impacts on the business environment, showing costs and benefits of the regulatory measures in an effort to ensure the greatest public benefit.

However, not all attendees agreed that Lebanon would benefit from joining the WTO, which over the years has faced strong opposition from the agriculture sectors throughout the world, particularly developing countries, for causing low tariffs that have affected domestic production.

A presentation on Lebanon’s honey industry by Libnor, an institution attached to the Industry Ministry that issues standards for Lebanese food and mechanical products, explained the difficulties of getting farmers and the agriculture sectors on board with WTO accession.

“The fate of Lebanon’s honey industry will be like that of the silk industry,” said one audience member, referring to a once-leading Lebanese product that has all but disappeared with the rise of much cheaper imports helped by low tariffs and the country’s move toward a service-based economy.”

“There will be companies that are cheaper than ours, and this will affect our goodwill and our credibility,” the same audience member said.

Some asked whether it’s still not too late to protect Lebanese products.

“All this should have been done 10 years ago, not now. Do we still have time now to go back on what we’ve already accepted?” he asked.

Zouha Sakr, WTO accession project chief, assured that it was not too late.

“Absolutely,” she said. “The WTO is all about negotiations. Negotiations in goods and services are still at a very early stage. Yes there is time for regulatory analysis. To know which markets can open and what impact will be.”

Atef Idriss, founder of Al-Wafic for Economic Development said: “We either open the market or export honey to Australia or we stick to a market of 4 million [Lebanon’s population].”

Others voiced concern over delays that have taken place in Lebanon’s bid to accede to the WTO. An audience member said: “More delays mean more work to be done.”

Lebanon began its bid to join the WTO in 1999. During this time, it has struggled to meet the standards to join the organization due to outdated laws, regulations and quality standards.

U.S. and European officials repeatedly have called on the Lebanese government to crack down on rampant copyright violations.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 20, 2012, on page 4.

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