What good is Caricom? Regional unity losing steam

Jamaica Observer

What good is Caricom? Regional unity losing steam

4 July 2008

The question must now be asked, just how effective is Caricom, and does it serve any useful purpose? This has proven to be a watershed year for the regional body coming less than two years after the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), prevailing rampant food price, high energy cost and uncontrollable crime, all afflicting the region. Has Caricom address these issues effectively?

Under Doreen Frankson’s tenure as President of Jamaica Manufacturers Asssociation (JMA), she too asked what good is Caricom, if Jamaica cannot get concessionary prices for oil and gas from Trinidad. Only this year Minister for Trade and Investment Karl Sumuda had an almighty tussle with Guyana to strike a price deal for rice, with the Guyanese proving less than magnanimous.

Then there is the question of regional transportation which has remained unresolved for decades. It takes eight hours to get to London from Jamaica. It takes four hours to fly to New York from Jamaica. So then why does it take five hours to get to Trinidad, three and a half hours to get to St Lucia, and four hours to fly to Barbados from Jamaica. The key to regional integration is transportation. There does not seem to be a will among the desparate islands to fully embrace both the idea and reality of Caricom. A single Caribbean currency has proven to be unworkable, nothing more than a fiction.

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders are wrapping up their annual summit in Antigua, amid worrying signs that after 35 years, the regional integration movement has not progressed beyond a "community of sovereign states".

As Ralph Gonsalves, the St Vincent and the Grenadines prime minister and one of the older leaders among a crop of new Caribbean heads, noted recently Caricom will soon be forced to transform itself from "a ramshackle political-administrative apparatus" in which "several of its member states jealously guard a vaunted and pristine sovereignty".

Gonsalves has blamed the "politics of a limited regional engagement in Jamaica, shackled by the ghosts from the federal referendum; the politics of ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana; a mistaken sense of uniqueness and separation among the large sections of the Barbadian populace; the peculiar distinctiveness of Haiti and Suriname; and the cultivated aloofness from the regional enterprise by the Bahamas" for the present situation.

He has argued that unlike the smaller sub-regional Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), which is now celebrating its 27th anniversary, "the realisation of a common monetary policy or a common currency as there exists in the OECS member-countries" for Caricom is indeed a distant dream.

"Similarly, it is most doubtful that we would see in Caricom an integrated judiciary, as in the OECS," he said at a public consultation in his country in support of moves by the nine-member OECS grouping to establish its own economic union.

Norman Girvan, the respected Caribbean academic and former secretary general of the Association of Caribbean States, has warned of a possible collapse of Caricom, if regional leaders fail to put in place mechanisms to enforce decisions regarding the integration process.

Girvan, who last year presented a report to the regional leaders that was meant to "provide a vision for the development of the Caribbean Community to which all stakeholders can give their support", said the 15-member grouping had become stagnant due mainly to a lack of implementing decisions.

"I’ve been a committed integrationist all my life, but I have to call it as I see it...To be brutally frank and realistic about it, I see a real danger of disintegration. We are at a juncture," he said.

The Jamaican-born Girvan said the regional leaders seem to lack the will to pass the Single Caricom Act, first recommended in 1992 that would give automatic effect to Caricom decisions in member states.

"The governments are still dillydallying on that. They simply do not want to take that critical step of transferring some of their sovereignty to the regional body," he said.

"We’re still clinging to the insular sovereignty that, in my opinion, is largely fictitious because in the modern world states of our size simply cannot expect to have any real sovereignty," Girvan added. "The forces of globalisation, the fact of our small size, the fact of our trade dependency, the fact of our military weakness, all of these things make it virtually impossible for our small island states to have any real sovereignty."

Girvan pointed to the decision by Guyana and Suriname to become part of the Union of South American Nations; Dominica, St Vincent and Antigua joining the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America; and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Europe as factors that have further weakened Caricom.

The three-day summit took place amidst a rapidly changing regional and global environment influenced by high oil and food prices as well as national security concerns that have resulted in "special summits" by the leaders throughout the past 12 months.

The ongoing political situation in Haiti, where President Rene Preval has failed on two occasions to have his nominee elected as prime minister, is definitely a cause for concern.

Regional leaders have to address concerns by their citizens about new trade arrangements such as the EPA that Caricom countries, as part of the wider Caribbean Forum grouping (CARIFORUM), negotiated with the European Union last December.

Guyana has said it would not sign the agreement, amid continuing criticism that the nonreciprocal and discriminating preferential trade agreements offered by the EU are incompatible with World Trade Organisation rules.
Regional labour officials, who met in Barbados last week for a review of the impact of the EPA on the workers of the region, are also urging a renegotiation of the pact.

Further, the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL) says it wants a provision for a mandatory review within three years of signature of the agreement, with the possibility of renegotiation. The CCL said it would be sending the recommendations to each Caricom leader ahead of the summit.

Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding, while admitting that the EPA is not a "perfect agreement", said his country would sign on July 15.

"I’ve told the critics we still don’t have to sign it... but when you do that, understand that every item that you are sending to Europe is going to attract duties. If you can deal with that, then fine," he added.

Another talking point at the summit was the decision by Britain to prevent Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory, and a full-fledged Caricom member from participating in the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME). London’s decision has already been characterised in the Caribbean media as a "demonstration of colonialism".

London has outlined a number of reasons, including "the potential loss of revenues associated with the liberalisation of capital, harmonisation of fees and charges and the abolition of various licences", that would put pressure on Montserrat’s tax base and undermine the provision of services to the public.

Chief Minister Lowell Lewis, told his Parliament that the "activities of the very generous CSME programme approved by Caricom" sought to address all the concerns raised by London.

"The challenge will be for Caricom to continue with its commitments to the programme for Montserrat," he said.

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