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Britain voting to leave the European Union is one thing. And now, if France does the same in the coming months such a move could present a big problem for Caribbean countries which produce and export rum.

Top regional officials, especially those involved in the Barbados-based, umbrella West Indies Rum and Spirits Association (WIRSPA) say they fear that rum exports to the EU could be hurt if the far right National Front party of Marine Le Pen wins the second round of the upcoming French presidential elections.

Her party won 21.30 percent of the vote in the first round on Sunday, running second to Emmanuel Marcon, a candidate who favors the French remaining in the EU family of nearly 30 nations. Marcon won 24.01 percent. The two decimated a field of nearly a dozen candidates The second round of voting to determine who is the next French president is scheduled for May 7.

But Le Pen’s far right movement wants to vote like the British to abandon the EU, saying the system of collective rules and general oversight from EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium have undermined France’s sovereignty, national identity and independence. She even wants drastic restrictions on immigration and does not want Brussels to tell the French how to deal with issues such as migrants.

Frank Ward, head of the regional rum and spirts body argues that the EU may find it hard to survive a powerhouse and influential country like France leaving the EU but more importantly such a departure would undermine the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that the EU has with the Caribbean.

The EPA had replaced the Lome and Georgetown conventions which had governed trade and aid relations with the EU and the region and has much to do with sugar, rice, banana and rum exports to the EU.

“If there are any changes in government in some of our major markets that may also have an impact. The idea that France may pull out of the EU that could have a significant impact upon us so if the outcome of the French elections is such that it engenders a more protectionist outlook, that would not bode well for us as an export-oriented industry because then there may be barriers put up to us being able to trade. I’m not saying that it’s going to happen but we always have to be thinking of various possibilities which will negatively impact upon us,” Ward told the Barbados Today publication.

Barbados for example, earned $40M selling rum last year alone. Any major and drastic disruptions in that market could spell trouble for the region as the real fear is that the EPA aspects of agreements with Europe would not survive a French and British departure.

“Rum is an iconic product of the region for which we can be justifiably proud. We have done many, many things together over the years. We have had numerous successes, we have had hiccups, but nonetheless we have managed to advance the interest of the industry, not only for the owners of the companies themselves but also for the well-being of the community at large,” Ward argues.

The regional rum sector is closely monitoring the French vote even as a long running support program for the development of the rum industry in the region is coming to an end in the EU.

Europe had provided grant aid worth $63M over 14 years to upgrade factories, train staff, improve marketing and brand development and to set the stage for rum to survive in an open, free trade environment.

Time runs out on the program this year.

Updated 3:05 am, July 10, 2018
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