JOHANNESBURG - Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland has dismissed increasing US protectionism as a threat against the organisation and called on the 53 member countries to unite against it.
She poked holes in President Donald Trump’s stance on economic policy and likened it to World War I and II. “I think we are living in such dangerous times,” said Scotland in an exclusive interview with Business Report.
South Africa said it was disappointed that it was not granted an exemption from duties after Trump announced a 25percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminium in March.
There were fears that Trump’s protectionist stance could spread to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows qualifying African countries, including South Africa and Uganda, to export certain agricultural products to the US duty free.
“I think one of the great things about our Commonwealth is that in the world of increasing protectionism, the Commonwealth has shown itself to be open and multilateral,” said Scotland. “The best response to external threat is to keep to our principles and to our values. And the Commonwealth is bound by those values.
"If 1916 and 1936 taught us anything, it teaches us the importance of courage and the importance of standing together as one when we face threats to our integrity,” said the former UK prime minister’s trade envoy to South Africa.
Scotland said the fact that Africa had agreed to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) spoke volumes.
“None of us in the Commonwealth can control what another country does, but what we can do is control our response to it.”
Scotland, who is a lawyer by profession and became the first black woman to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1991, aged 35, said: “I’m very proud of the fact that if you look at the Commonwealth’s response, it has not been to increase protectionism.
“Our response to the increase in protectionism from outside of our Commonwealth is to increase the openness within our Commonwealth. And I think we are living in such dangerous times. It has never been more important for us to have strong friendships, strong commitments to each other and strong commitments to freedom and openness.”
Launching a broadside at Trump, without mentioning him by name, Scotland said: “It’s up to us to say what our responses are (to protectionism), irrespective of the response of others, no matter how big they think they are.”
Turning to economic opportunities Commonwealth countries were exposed to, Scotland said intratrade between the countries was about $585billion (R7.83trillion) and envisaged to top $700bn by 2020.
She said the World Trade Organisation’s New Trade Facilitation Agreement, which has been signed by 42 of the 53 Commonwealth countries, would look at practical barriers of trade.
Among other things the agreement sought to remove trade impediments and make processes between the member states easier and faster.
Scotland said a trade review conducted in 2015 found that there was a 19percent advantage in the trading patterns of Commonwealth members.
About the AfCFTA, which South Africa recently signed, Scotland said: “The devil is going to be in the detail on how to make the agreement a reality.”