An ominous week

Starbroek News | 10 September 2008

An ominous week

By Staff

In the course of this week the Heads of State and Government of the Caricom and then of the Caribbean Forum (Cariforum) will be meeting in Barbados, and the Heads of the Government of the OECS are due to meet in St Lucia.

The substance of the Caricom and Cariforum meetings will be discussion of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) initialled by the Director General of the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) on behalf of the Cariforum countries following the conclusion of negotiations with the European Union Commission. With respect to the OECS, our information is that the heads of government will be discussing the recent initiative of Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad & Tobago for establishing a “single economy” and then “appropriate political integration” with Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and St Lucia, as recorded in a Joint Declaration signed by the prime ministers of these countries on August 14.

The agreement reached on the EPA has been a source of tremendous debate since the question of its appropriateness to the future economic advancement of the Caricom states was raised by some academics, then by other stakeholders and then by some governments, notably the Government of Guyana. Guyana has been joined, though not so vociferously, by the governments of Grenada, St Lucia and Belize. There has been an extensive process of argument and counterargument, much of it conducted through the news media and thus available to listeners, viewers and readers. The debate, in which the CRNM has joined in defence of “the best agreement” that could have been made (in the words of the current Director-General of the CRNM) has sometimes reached points of extreme vigour bordering on the vituperative. The debate has enticed the participation, on the side of opposition to the EPA, of the senior Caribbean diplomat and former Chief Caricom Negotiator, Sir Shridath Ramphal. And from the point of view of the debate among the governments themselves, in which heads have participated, the brunt of the opposition to the EPA has been borne by President Jagdeo, as has been evident both before and during the national consultation held here last week.

An interesting aspect of the debate has been the defence of the agreement in the region itself by the European Union’s representatives. They have dismissed a number of arguments made by the opposition, most notably the view that implementation of the EPA could in fact destroy the movement towards a Caricom Single Economy; that the agreement gives no substantial sustenance for effective adjustment to the EU liberalization process and, therefore, for the so-called “development dimension” so necessary to enable that adjustment. They deny that the EU has reneged on its view that one of the main objectives of a post-Lome-Cotonou agreement with the ACP was supposed to be the strengthening of regional economic integration, on the basis that many ACP countries were too small to achieve the economies of scale necessary for viable economic growth. And finally they assert that non-adherence by states to the EPA will mean loss of remaining tariff protection for their agricultural exports, and their subjection to the terms of the Generalised System of Preferences, deemed disadvantageous to the growth prospects of our agriculturally based economies.

To the man in the street, it seems that the EPA, and the debate on it, have split Caricom governments, and that the prospects for their arriving at some harmonious agreement at this week’s Caricom meeting are not good. It must seem to the ordinary citizen also that the contentious nature of the debate could well affect progress in other areas in Caricom, and the devotion of member-states to the pursuit of the CSME within the time allocated. The citizen might well feel himself justified in asking why, since the EPA was being negotiated over such a long period of time, some governments have only now discovered deficiencies in it. Was progress in the negotiaitons being effectively reported to by the relevant ministers? Was the real substance of the negotiations being communicated by the CRNM to the Caricom Secretariat? What has been the role of the Ministerial Council on Trade and Economic Development which is serviced by the secretariat? Why, if there was to be a development dimension, did we not “take in front” and indicate in what spheres this should be pursued? The man in the street might note that he has heard precious little from the secretariat on this issue. Has it been out of its legitimate sphere of activity or interest?

More knowledgeable observers might ask whether any result was achieved some months ago when, during a Commonwealth Heads of Government, our own heads appealed to Prime Minister Gordon Brown to facilitate an easing of difficulties between our negotiators and the EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson. For its seems that our own CRNM would appear to be in the corner of the EU in the present dispute, and therefore on one side of the inter-governmental differences. These observers might also note how long it has taken for our heads to decide to meet on this issue, and whether each was just satisfied to hold his own corner, issue dissonant statements, and wait to see what would happen.

Whatever the situation, it can hardly be the case that our region has given a display of sophisticated diplomacy during these last few weeks. The general impression must surely be that, on an issue of global importance, and on which many countries, including those in Africa and the Pacific, and those like Canada with whom we are shortly due to renegotiate our joint trade agreement, will have been closely watching to see how the Caribbean matched up to this challenge of negotiating a complex agreement, we have not done too well. What does that do for our international prestige? Some of these states, who also gave support to our effort to evolve a new system of governance of Caricom, and have watched the effort collapse, must surely wonder if arriving at harmonious agreement on complex issues is proving too much for us. However we read it, we do seem, as a region, to be extremely diplomatically exposed at this point.

As the OECS heads sit down this week to discuss the “Manning Initiative,” they will also have heard the sounds of discord emanating from beyond their own ranks, even from those who were not invited to be part of the initiative. One of the prime supporters of the initiative, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, has in some measure partly justified his enthusiasm for it by linking it to the apparent failure of the Governance of Caricom initiative, and doubts about our ability to achieve the single economy by the stated date of 2015. He has argued that once he understood that Prime Minister Golding raised the possibility that Jamaica might not be able to participate in a single economy if this infringed his country’s sovereignty, he became inclined to seek an alternative route to integration.

It would not be far from correct to say that there is much pessimism on the likelihood of success of the Manning Initiative. As in the debate on the EPA, all sorts of issues are being thrown into this one, with conclusions being reached well in advance of the receipt of the report which the interested governments have commissioned. The fact that not all OECS governments were invited to the initial meeting that produced the Joint Declaration, might well be seen to have huge potential for splitting their ranks. And it is yet to be seen if Mr Manning’s post-declaration visits to these countries have calmed fears or minimized suspicions.

Some outside observers will probably have concluded that the region is probably punch-drunk from integration initiatives and has reached the limits of its ability to advance the process beyond its present state. More sympathetic ones may give us the benefit of the doubt and draw to the doubters’ attention the amount of difficulty that Europe is having with the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. And even others will raise the question of whether our approach to these matters is outmoded, limited as the initial discussions tend to be, to the narrow circle of heads of government, with no prior resort to, or sounding out of other stakeholders, and of what is today referred to as civil society. The eager participation of civil society in the wider response to the EPA, and then in the national consultation here in Guyana, might well support this view - the view of a ‘democratic deficit’ now characterizing Caribbean governmental decision-making.

So, it would appear that a set of heavy responsibilities devolves on our heads this week. They are required, in all the regional meetings taking place to display a degree of competence in diplomacy that will satisfy the undoubtedly deep concerns of their domestic, regional and international constituencies. As the EPA talks end in Barbados, and the outcomes are assessed, questions will be asked if we have made one step forward towards agreement on an appropriate adjustment to changing international economic circumstances - an issue which has been on the table since the heads’ receipt of the West Indian Commission Report in 1992 - or whether we are maintaining our fifteen-year posture of standstill.

And questions will be asked, on the integration issue, whether it is the judgement of our heads that enhancement of both country and regional, political and economic size and scale, is an appropriate response to the globalization issue, or whether ‘sovereignty’ rules out any such approach.

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source: Starbroek News