News Americas, LONDON, England, Tues. Jan. 10, 2012: Most years Caribbean governments and their counterparts from beyond the region hold policy level encounters at which they discuss matters of common interest.
Such meetings, involving Heads of Government or senior ministers, have in the recent past included a meeting in 2011 in Trinidad with the Chinese leadership; a bi-regional summit between Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean in Madrid in 2010; a Heads of Government meeting with the US President and Secretary of State in 2009; and high level exchanges with individual nations which have a continuing interest in the region such as Canada, France, Spain and the UK.
The theory is that such events, if well prepared and with a clear outcome and action plan, offer not only the opportunity for a policy level exchange and the strengthening of high level relationships but also a more certain perspective on the future.
However, there is a sense in Europe and North America that unless encounters with the Caribbean become more dynamic, and focus on changed realities and what is deliverable, they are in danger of having ever less value.
Rightly or wrongly, what is being said in private is that much of the Anglophone part of the Caribbean does not relate to the ways in which traditional partners now think, is locked into an historic analysis and is deploying a formalised approach that no longer politically resonates. There is also a sense that the failure of the Caribbean to deliver an integrated region and the absence of any new narrative about itself or its strategic objectives is making it difficult to sustain high level political interest outside the region.
Of course it is quite reasonable to set this aside and respond, as some in the Caribbean do, that this is no longer relevant. The region’s future, they argue, lies elsewhere, in a stronger relationship with Brazil, Venezuela and the nations of Latin America and with China, India, South Africa and with others, and that this is where it is headed. Others counter that the value in newer ties comes when they form a part of a series of balanced and overlapping relationships and in providing all partners with clarity.
The sense of Caribbean marginalisation is particularly acute in Europe where despite the mature relationship and European rhetoric about partnership, the longer term policy trends point in a very different direction.
In a Europe of twenty seven states in which the majority have no colonial past, most officials and politicians see the Caribbean as marginal or no relevance to Europe’s priorities or global strategic interests. As a consequence EU Members states, the European Commission and the European Parliament largely lack interest or empathy and are taking decisions in a vacuum modified only by the extent to which Ambassadors and occasional visiting ministers can influence thinking.
Why this is important is because Europe is now at a stage of theological discussion about the nature of its longer term relationship with many parts of the world, including the Caribbean and Latin America. For the Caribbean the signs are not good.
The long term trend of seeing Latin America and the Caribbean as one region is gaining pace and the emphasis is on finding ways to encourage this. With European economies in crisis and a desire to promote a business agenda, the emphasis in Europe is to focus on economic growth and opportunity.
The consequence of this is that development policy will largely move away from the bilateral to the regional and be more focussed on newer priorities, while support will be focussed on growth and the private sector. With two exceptions, dealing with the Caribbean bilaterally is not on the European agenda.
The Caribbean so far has not said anything about this.
Indeed the sense in Brussels is that the philosophical battle is all but lost as the region has failed to demonstrate that it has either a new narrative or can deploy its strategic assets. The point is made that independent Caribbean will cease to be able to significantly modify politically what is now being discussed unless it can rapidly make clear: how it will exercise realistically the leverage its fifteen votes in the UN confer; demonstrate the value of its approach to security, the environment and climate change; recognise the significance of having Dutch and British Overseas Territories and French département d’outre-mer in its midst; and embrace the Hispanic Caribbean and Central America.
This may sound harsh, even arrogant, but this is the new transactional reality taking shape.
It requires a strategic regional political response of the kind that in the past a statesman like Sir Shridath Ramphal would have deployed or in the context of trade, the Jamaican Trade and Industry Minister, Anthony Hylton, was able to deliver. It also requires the cultivation of new political friends, money being spent on a politically acute Diaspora organisation overseas and a strategy that identifies at a regional level, the areas of mutual self interest with every external partner.
Unfortunately, this seems unlikely. Much of the Caribbean has become inward looking as it has sunk into a slough of debt, economic despondency and limited growth. Most nations have not yet addressed the toxic interrelated issues of public sector reform, pensions, taxation, public expenditure, youth unemployment and growth. Much of the private sector remains inward looking and protectionist and the gap between the economies of the region and their counterparts in Central and South America and the Hispanic Caribbean is growing. As my friend and colleague, Sir Ron Sanders, implied in a recent column, the regional ship is adrift and sinking.
Later this month Britain will bring an unusually high powered team of ministers to the Caribbean for a much delayed UK Caribbean Forum because it wants to find a new basis on which to engage.
The event will be important: not because it is with the former colonial power or about the inequities of APD or the need for continuing security or environmental co-operation, but because it offers the whole Caribbean the opportunity to begin to change the nature of its dialogue with Europe.
It comes at an important moment as the sense that emerges and the relationships that develop may come to influence longer term thinking in Europe as a whole about the Caribbean’s ability to escape from its history.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at [email protected] Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org.