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Sunday, March 7, 1999 Published at 05:17 GMT

Business: The Economy

Caribbean leaders hit out over bananas

Bananas from South America and the West Indies on sale in London

Caribbean leaders have threatened to withdraw from a trade and security agreement with the United States because of its dispute with the European Union over banana exports.

[ image:  ]
A statement by the regional grouping, Caricom, at a summit in Surinam said the American actions against the EU could have disastrous consequences for economies in the Caribbean region, many of which rely heavily on banana exports.

The row centres on allegations that Europe favours Caribbean bananas over those from Central American companies - many of which are owned by US firms.

On Saturday, UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the trade row could cause real damage to British industry.

'Strong concern'

Robin Cook at the News Conference
Speaking after talks with the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, Mr Cook said: "I expressed our strong concern that the US had taken action without waiting for the World Trade Organisation meeting in only a few weeks' time."

He said they had a full discussion on the trade row and he now hoped it would be resolved quickly.

"The damage to our trade could be real, especially to the Scottish cashmere industry. I am glad to report that we both agreed that the US and Europe should get down to talks in order to find a rapid negotiated settlement," Mr Cook said.

According to the Foreign Office, Kosovo dominated the agenda at the talks, not the trade row.

US State Department spokesman James Rubin, accompanying Mrs Albright said "what we did was to protect our rights".

Pressure over bananas

Washington Correspondent Paul Reynolds: "Final ruling expected on April 12"
Mrs Albright's visit follows two days of diplomatic pressure, with the US ambassador in London twice summoned by the government - an unprecedented step.

The WTO has called emergency talks on Monday to discuss the US's decision to impose import restrictions on many European goods.

The EU has accused Washington of "irresponsible unilateral action" and "blatant disregard" of WTO dispute procedures.

'We must stick to rules'

President Bill Clinton said on Friday that he hoped the row could be be ended within the next few weeks.

"I regret this very much," Mr Clinton said of the fight which escalated when the US stepped up threats to slap 100% duties on selected European goods.

"We still have time to fix this ... and I hope very much we will in the next few weeks get a resolution of this."

President Clinton said the dispute was not really about bananas, but about the need for rules to govern world trade.

"We cannot maintain an open trading system, which I am convinced is essential for global prosperity, unless we also have rules that are abided by," he added.

US imposes charges

Paul Royall reports: "Thousands of jobs are at risk"
The six-year quarrel blew up on Wednesday, when the US said importers of a range of European products - varying from French cheese to Scottish cashmere - would have to pay a bond to customs before the goods would be allowed to be imported.

The bonds will cover the cost of duties that Washington might impose in future, if the WTO finds in its favour.

About $520m a year of EU exports are affected by the action, and thousands of jobs could be put at risk.

Fergus Nicoll: "There are still some tough decisions ahead"
The EU maintains that its policy on banana imports has been changed to bring it into line with WTO regulations.

But the US has lost patience with both the EU and the WTO, which has postponed a decision on whether Brussels is breaking trading laws.

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