Letters & Opinion

Deeper integration of CARICOM countries cannot wait

Image of Sir Ronald Sanders
By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.  The views expressed are entirely his own)

The destruction by tornadoes of Kentucky, a south-eastern State of the United States of America (US), on December 12, has lessons for the countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), as 2022 dawns amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and weakened economies.

One of the lessons is that those member states of CARICOM that continue to insist on CARICOM remaining “a community of sovereign states”, each pursuing separate policies – sometimes to the detriment of each other – are marching down the road to perdition, as the facts of their situation substantiate.

Many of the sovereign states of CARICOM would not be solvent if it weren’t for the official development assistance they receive.  Their sovereignty is constrained by the extent of their financial and economic dependence for which they pay a price.  Curiously, some of them prefer to pay a price to external powers, than to pool their individual sovereignty into a common autonomous authority with their CARICOM partners in order to build greater strength and resilience.

Why should people in other US States, such as Texas or New York, care about the devastation of Kentucky?  After all, Kentucky’s representatives in the US Senate, Mitch McConnel and Rand Paul, fiercely resist the US federal government.  They want to maintain power in Kentucky’s governor and legislature, just like some governments of CARICOM countries insist on their “sovereignty”.

Kentucky is a state within the Union of 50 states that comprise the US.   If the US federal government does not use national resources to aid Kentucky to rebuild, the State will fall into unemployment, poverty and crime.  It would eventually become a failed state. People would flee to find livelihoods elsewhere and investors would shift their money to functioning economies.  The Federal Government could not allow Kentucky to fail, not even with the likes of Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul favouring state power over federal authority.  If Kentucky were left to fend for itself, it would become a weak link in the US chain, making the country vulnerable and exposing it to security threats.

The Federal Government rallied to provide immediate relief to Kentucky, and to committing huge sums of money to its rebuilding and recovery, because the United States is one nation.  It is not a group of sovereign states.   If the US were just a community of independent states, as are the members of CARICOM, it would not be the world’s greatest economic and military power.   Instead, 50 states would exist – some stronger and better resourced than others, but each of them much weaker individually than they are as a single nation, and certainly none of them a force in the world.

In fashioning their independence, the original 13 countries (then British colonies) debated a union with a strong federal government or a collection of independent and disparate States.  They settled on a strong Federal government precisely because they recognised that only by joining their collective resources would they be sufficiently strong to resist England, France, Spain and other European powers that would have kept them dependent and in thrall.

From the beginnings of CARICOM, governments, haunted by the collapse of the West Indies Federation caused by ambitious and manipulative local politicians determined to be big fish in small bowls resisted the Union that would have reduced their vulnerabilities, enhanced their resilience, and made them economically stronger.

What is striking about the years 2020 and 2021 is that the greatest success of the ‘sovereign’ states of the Caribbean Community came from joint institutions and collective action.  No country in CARICOM would have battled COVID-19 without the Caribbean Public Health Agency; none would have responded quickly enough to natural disasters without the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency; and none would have mobilized insurance relief without the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility or the emergency resources of the Caribbean Development Bank.  As it is, despite the help of regional agencies, almost all of them now have large debt burdens and recovery will be long and hard, except for Guyana with the addition of considerable oil and gas wealth to its traditional resources of agriculture and precious metals.

Recently, Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali, talking to the private sector in his country, declared that “Regional integration and other ‘fancy talk’ cannot be taken seriously unless the current (trade) barriers are removed”.   He is right about that.  CARICOM claims to be a Common Market, yet the countries have erected trade barriers against themselves, while opening their markets to the European Union and the United Kingdom with little trade benefits in return.  After almost 50 years of existence, CARICOM is still not a Common Market and is far away from a Customs Union.  The much vaunted ‘single market and economy’ has become a fading aspiration.

But, it is not only trade barriers that should be torn down.  CARICOM and its purposes need to be reconsidered, reworked and redirected.  No one should be satisfied with its current condition; all should be ready to revamp it.

It is most likely the case that CARICOM governments are still not ready for the more perfect union that could help to insulate each CARICOM country from the severe challenges that lie ahead in 2022 and beyond.  However, if the last two decades have proven anything, it is that individual sovereignty is not the answer to the economic progress or resilience of the member states of CARICOM.   Like Kentucky, they lack the financial and resource capacity for effective resilience.

In this connection, the CARICOM Treaty needs revision now.  The mistakes of its last revision should not be repeated. Implementation machinery must be established to oversee the completion of a Common Market, including freedom of movement of all people just as there is freedom of movement of capital.  There should also be clear compensatory mechanisms for those states that dismantle protectionist policies.  Countries that cannot sign up to these necessary actions should not delay the integration of others; they should step aside and consider joining later.

IF CARICOM is to be meaningful to the lives of its member countries, deeper integration cannot wait.

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