By David Jessop
There is a paradox at the heart of European policy towards the Caribbean. For the sake of neatness and administrative ease, Ministers and officials want to regard the Caribbean as a single entity. Despite this they know that to make any progress they have to deal individually with a disparate group of nations, each jealously protecting their individuality and sovereignty, divided by language, history and thousands of miles of ocean.
In an attempt to address the difficulty of having to deal with so many small nations, Europe has sought variously to embrace the concept of Cariforum (Caricom including Haiti plus the Dominican Republic); is working to complete a document that will govern its relationship with the British, Dutch and French overseas territories; would like to begin work on preparing for some form mandate to negotiate an association agreement with Cuba; and is trying to reconcile complex issues relating to the overseas departments of France in the Caribbean. In fact the only part of the region Europe looks past are the US territories.
This process, which attempts to develop a coherent approach to the region as a whole, has gathered pace as Europe’s multilateral and bilateral financial resources have diminished, strategic priorities have moved to other parts of the world and the number of EU nations with little or no interest in the region has increased.
As a consequence, Europe is now in the throes of considering how it should reorient its development policy so the focus is less on individual nations and more on regional and European priorities.
The debate in Brussels is being conducted on the basis that some officials in the European Commission believe that all nations other than Haiti should be graduated out of development assistance on the basis that the Caribbean is, in relative terms, too wealthy.
In practical terms this means that the European Commission is engaged in an intense internal discussion about how and when such a policy might be implemented and how it should best be delivered. The theory is that other than for Haiti, most future European programmes should be regional and would focus with limited resource on a small number of areas such as the environment, security, promoting economic growth and developing the private sector.
Despite this, the problem that continues to face Europe and others in trying to deliver programmes at a regional level remains how best to address the issue of the multiplicity of competing sovereignties with varying interests and different abilities to deliver.
The challenge was clearly identified in recent remarks by the IMF's senior resident representative to Jamaica, Gene Leon.
He put it this way: “Individualism is limiting the Caribbean’s growth potential”. “The entire Caribbean region can be a much stronger integrated network than it is now. But we cannot have regional integration and, at the same time, have national sovereignty and, at the same time, individual political and social agendas”.
"The three things do not mix. You cannot get all of them in exactly the optimal way, at the same time. There has to be a trade-off and a consensus as to how we go forward," he told the Mona School of Business.
But despite suggesting there may be a telling economic case for regionalism, the reality is that virtually all nations and multilateral institutions can only effectively implement policies at a national level.
Europe and the IMF might desire to become more engaged in the delivery of projects at a regional level, but in the real world this may be crying for the moon. Moreover it is not matched by what is happening on the ground, where for the most part EU member states with an interest in the region are looking to enhance their bilateral cooperation with those countries that are most responsive and offer the best prospects for economic growth or political co-operation.
One of the clearest signs of this was the recent announcement by the UK Government that despite its wish to see the Caribbean as a whole is placing a new emphasis on its relationship with the Dominican Republic.
As a part of what some may see as a rebalancing of bilateral relationships, the Dominican Republic’s Foreign Minister, Carlos Morales Troncoso, and the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, signed a co-operation agreement in London on June 20.
The agreement, the only one of its kind, in the Caribbean region, other than that with Cuba, which serves a different purpose, establishes a clear framework and set of priorities for future relations. The agreement spells out in some detail the areas in which the two governments will enhance bilateral cooperation through trade and investment. It speaks about the execution of practical joint activities such as trade missions and visits. It also commits the two nations to promoting the Cariforum-EU Economic Partnership Agreement. It also speaks to promoting measures aimed at reducing corruption and enhancing collaboration and coordination on a wide range of security issues. It covers climate change, education, culture and sport, justice, maritime Issues, Haiti, and co-operation on other Foreign Policy Issues. Notably it also establishes a basis for meetings at least annually to take stock of the progress made in implementing the understanding.
The agreement coincided with the announcement by the UK that it is opening new embassies in Haiti, and in Central and South America.
What this suggests is that while countries like the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Jamaica and others continue to pursue their desire to see the regional integration process function they like the UK have really concluded that national self-interest come first.
While there remain important regional issues that require a joined up approach, such as the environment and co-ordination on security, in the real world, as untidy as it may seem, theoreticians everywhere need to understand that programmes in the Caribbean will have to be delivered at a national level for the foreseeable future.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org