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French Version

EU delegation head emphasizes urgent need for economic reform (Daily Star)

Conference focuses on Lebanon’s trade relations with Europe

Head of the European Union (EU) delegation Patrick Renault warned on Tuesday that the government’s failure to implement the provisions of the Paris II meeting will negatively affect the economy, underlining the need for economic reform.

Renault was speaking at the first ever conference organized by the World Trade Center (WTC) Beirut.

At the conference, which focused on Lebanon’s trade relations with the EU, Renault gave a quick overview of Lebanon’s moribund economy. He then warned that while the international community assisted Lebanon at Paris II, “Its effect will be inconsequential if the reforms that were promised are not implemented.”

Renault added that this warning was given by the EU last February at the third meeting of the cooperation council, which took place in Brussels. “Why this warning? Because the macroeconomic situation is getting worse and difficult times are approaching. In 2004 alone the payable debt is $13 billion,” said Renault.

Renault then spoke at length about the challenges facing Lebanese exporters. For instance, he said while Lebanese products now have the opportunity to enter European markets, many are not able to because they do not meet EU standards. “The European Commission is implementing a new program to increase the quality and standards of Lebanese agricultural products. However, external assistance will not be enough. What is also needed is a real will by the Lebanese private and public sector to modernize,” Renault said.

The panel of prominent speakers included Fadi Abboud, president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists, who spoke candidly about the private sector’s concerns. “Industrial modernization is a key factor in improving industrial exports,” Abboud said, adding that EU assistance programs have played an important role in enhancing the competitiveness of local companies.

He cited the Euro-Lebanese Center for Industrial Modernization (ELCIM), the three-year program that was set up in May 2001 under a 6.4 million euro grant. “I truly believe that the increase in exports between 2002 and 2003 was at least partially due to ELCIM’s work with Lebanese manufacturers,” he said.

Abboud said while the association agreement with the EU offers Lebanon an opportunity to transform its economy and become “a magnet for European foreign direct investment and joint-venture partnerships,” numerous obstacles stemming from government policy prevent it from doing so. “Administrative reform is now the mother of our battles,” he said half-jokingly. Among other things, he said that “Lebanon’s operating environment suffers from high cost of public services as well as heavy and very costly administrative procedures.”

Likewise, the Minister of Economy and Trade Marwan Hamade, talked about the benefits of the association agreement with the EU, and at the same time took the opportunity to voice complaints about the slow pace of administrative reform.

“Strengthening trade relations provide us with the opportunities to create wealth through export-led growth … and concluding the association agreement represented a vital cornerstone in Lebanon’s trade liberalization strategy,” Hamade said. However, he cautioned that trade liberalization will not be sufficient to kick-start the economy. He said the country “is plagued” by an unsustainable public debt and political squabbling.

Speaking on behalf of the WTC Beirut was Chadi Abou Daher, the organization’s general manager. He said that the conference was organized to inaugurate its services in Lebanon. WTC Beirut is a member of the World Trade Centers Association headquartered in New York, which today includes 291 World Trade Centers in 88 countries.

“The association is a non-profit organization whose objective is to develop and facilitate international trade,” said Abou Daher.

“For any a country to successfully participate in the growing global marketplace, it must have the proper service infrastructure,” said Abou Daher, who then gave an overview of the various services WTC Beirut offers. They include a trade information center, organizing trade missions and exhibitions, in addition to online business matchmaking through the association’s web site.

Abou Daher said these services have two main objectives, namely, to assist local companies enter foreign markets and attract foreign investors to Lebanon. He added that during its first year of operation WTC Beirut is offering companies membership for free, and that membership is global.

The conference was attended by notable members of the business and diplomatic community, including US Ambassador Vincent Battle.

Beirut 18-03-2004
Natasha Tohme
The Daily Star

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