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Wither CARICOM? – Prospects Post-Brexit

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security.
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  • July 11, 2016

    On July 06, 2016, the 37th Regular Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) was held in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown, where, among the usual issues dealing with trade and security, the impact of the June 23 “Brexit” referendum on the region was discussed.1 Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) has led to much concern within the regional grouping, as it assesses its possible impact upon its plans for greater economic and political integration. The memories of the short-lived and failed West Indies Federation still cast a long shadow over the ambitions of the region’s leaders.

    It is hard to overstate the importance of the European model to the CARICOM project. Formed on August 01, 1973, with the purpose of fostering economic cooperation and integration and to coordinate foreign policy2, CARICOM was largely inspired from the European Economic Community (EEC) of the 1970s, and subsequently by the transformation of EEC into EU.3 Another interesting thing is that at no point of time was there any referendum in any Caribbean nation to either endorse or reject any aspect of the ongoing attempt at regional integration.

    However, unlike EU, which occupied a prominent place in the domestic political discourse of its member states, CARICOM and its plans have been largely missing (to date) from an otherwise vigorous internal political debate that characterises the electoral politics of most of the countries in the Caribbean region. This could in part be due to the fact that while visa free travel is permitted within the CARICOM countries, work permits are still required for employment, and also since movement towards a Caribbean Single Market Economy (CSME), which envisages a single currency and trade agreements very similar to the arrangements within the EU, have been extremely slow, with project implementation on nearly all aspects of the CSME delayed by many years.4 CARICOM’s foreign policy has not been entirely cohesive either, with the region failing to create a unified response to the 1983 Grenada coup, though rallying together in subsequent years to assist Trinidad & Tobago in 1990 and Haiti on an ongoing basis.

    At present, much of the focus of CARICOM nations is on the impact Brexit will have on their local economies. Since 2013, CARICOM and the Dominican Republic, collectively called Cariforum, have been the beneficiaries of an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU. This has given the region duty and quota free access to EU markets for all products, plus significant aid to boost trade, with gradual reciprocity being shown for EU exports to the Caribbean region.5

    Since Britain had played a pivotal role in assisting Cariforum in securing an advantageous trade deal, its absence from future deliberations in EU has caused some concern in the region, for links with other EU countries, while friendly, are bereft of the sentiment that Britain as the old colonial power still had for the region.6 It also means that Cariforum would now have to negotiate a separate trade deal, seeking waiver from the World Trade Organisation (WTO), for post-Brexit trade with Britain.7 The prospect of uncertainty and adverse economic fallout post-Brexit, is therefore of key concern to the member-states of CARICOM.

    However, though CARICOM is not at the forefront of the domestic politics of the nations of the region, there is a surprisingly high degree of scepticism among the larger and wealthier Caribbean countries – Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago being notable – of the benefits of CARICOM to their national interests. Given the disparities in income, education and overall levels of development, the fear of flow of cheap labour from a country like Haiti appears real.8 Fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, is the fact that Trinidad & Tobago has been playing host to about 110,000 illegal immigrants, more than 40,000 of whom come from Guyana and Jamaica alone with attendant tensions.9 Jamaica itself has had to cope with an influx, albeit smaller, from Haiti.10

    There are enormous disparities in terms of population and wealth among the 15 member-states of the CARICOM (see table below):



    State

    Joined

    Population

    Km²

    GNI in USD billion

    GNI Per Capita in USD

    Antigua and Barbuda

    July 4, 1974

    91,818

    442

    1.2

    12,910

    Bahamas

    July 4, 1983

    383,054

    13,939

    8.4

    22,312

    Barbados

    August 1, 1973 (Founder)

    283,380

    431

    4.2

    15,172

    Belize

    May 1, 1974

    351, 706

    22,966

    1.6

    4,660

    Dominica

    May 1, 1974

    72,341

    750

    0.493

    6,760

    Grenada

    May 1, 1974

    106.349

    345

    0.806

    7,460

    Guyana

    August 1, 1973 (Founder)

    763,893

    216,960

    3.1

    3,750

    Haiti

    July 2, 2002

    10,572,029

    27,560

    8.766

    820

    Jamaica

    August 1,  1973 (Founder)

    2,720,554

    10,991

    13.7

    5,220

    Montserrat

    May 1, 1974

    4,900

    103

    0.058

    11,836

    Saint Kitts and Nevis

    July 26, 1974

    54,944

    269

    0.724

    13,460

    Saint Lucia

    May 1, 1974

    183,645

    616

    1.3

    7,090

    Saint Vincent and

    the Grenadines

    May 1, 1974

    109,360

    389

    0.722

    6,580

    Suriname

    July 4, 1995

    538,248

    163,820

    5.297

    9,583

    Trinidad and Tobago

    August 1, 1973 (Founder)

    1,354,438

    5,128

    21.2

    15,760

    Sources: International Monetary Fund, World Bank, CARICOM

    According to an editorial on Brexit published in one of the Jamaica’s leading newspapers, if a similar referendum was to be held on the membership of CARICOM, a possible outcome could be “Trexit” or “Jamexit”.11 The fate of the West Indies Federation still resonates among some of the countries in the region. Lasting from 1958-1962, the Federation was an attempt to create a unified Caribbean state as Britain granted independence to ten islands of the English-speaking Caribbean region. As independence drew nearer, Jamaica, which did not view its national interest as best served by a unified Caribbean nation, withdrew from the Federation, prompting Trinidad to do the same. The expression coined by then Trinidadian Prime Minister Eric Williams - “one from ten leaves nought”, is still remembered whenever the concept of a unified Caribbean is discussed.

    So, will CARICOM suffer the fate of EU where domestic resentment finally prevailed over quest for stronger regional integration? It is no coincidence that former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding recently sounded a warning that, unless CARICOM is made relevant, it could suffer the same fate.12 It is noteworthy that, unlike EU, CARICOM largely remains the product of a certain vision of the regional political elites rather than the will of the citizens of its member-states. As CARICOM’s quest for closer political and economic union has yet to capture the public imagination, one cannot completely rule out the possibility of some of the member-states of CARICOM going the British way.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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