At the opening of the 33rd Conference of the 15-Nation Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom), the incoming chairman, St Lucia's Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, called on governments of the region to "develop a common policy and programme for engagement with new and emerging global partners". The words "common policy" are especially significant, and it has to be assumed that he did not use them lightly.
As small, vulnerable countries, lacking in military capacity or economic clout, effective diplomacy is the best tool available to them. And while, from time to time, these small countries have scored impressive diplomatic victories in the international community, they have been most successful when they have adopted common policies and pursued them jointly.
The St Lucia prime minister was also careful in stating that the terms of engagement with new and emerging global partners "must be defined by our strategic interests". Again, it is assumed that by the use of the word "our" in this context, the prime minister meant the collective strategic interest of all Caricom countries, and not just the interests of individual nations. Where individual interests have been pursued in the past, only short-term objectives have been served, and individual countries have found themselves subject to the dictates of external forces over the longer period.
While, even as a collective, the small size of Caricom countries and their markets do not make them powerful, they are able to bargain more strongly together than they can individually. That was the lesson of the Lomé and Cotonou agreements signed with the European Union (EU). In negotiating those agreements, Caribbean countries worked in lock-step with the countries of Africa and the Pacific-- something that they did not manage to achieve in the more recent negotiations with the EU for an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
Prime Minister Anthony expressed the hope that the Caricom countries would dedicate their efforts "towards a dynamic and outward stance of engagement with third states, particularly with Africa, Latin America and other emerging economic regions". He was right to do so, for the two regions offer both diplomatic and economic opportunities if they are pursued in the context of an overall Caricom plan.
He did not mention by name the most important region -- Asia -- where two large developing countries, China and India, have emerged as global economic players. This may be because he is conscious that Caricom countries have no "common policy" with regard to China and Taiwan, since five of them (including his own) are tied to Taiwan and nine to China (the 15th Caricom country, Montserrat, is a British colony with no authority for foreign policy).
This particular issue is not likely to be settled any time soon. The countries that are tied to Taiwan are dependent on the Taiwanese Government for much-needed financing and infrastructural development, and unless an arrangement could be worked out in advance by which China assumes the Taiwanese undertakings on similar or better terms, they will resist change. This means that Caricom will be unable to develop a long-term, predictable arrangement with China covering economic, political, cultural and scientific relations.
One solution to the problem would be for Caricom to agree to a parallel-track approach to Asia, with all of them collectively developing relations with India, while relations with China and Taiwan are pursued separately by the nine and five countries with co-ordination of their activities by the Caricom Secretariat. The fly in this ointment is that China and Taiwan might not agree. But China is now too crucially important a global player not to be fully engaged by Caricom countries. Something has to be done to break this log-jam, and soon.
As Prime Minister Anthony emphasised: "This is not the time for a weaker Community." He has identified the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group and the Commonwealth as two fora where Caricom countries can enhance their global reach and relevance. He is right. But the task will require a well-thought-out vision and strategy, and its implementation will need joint machinery, including joint overseas diplomatic missions, directed by an engaged Ministerial Council.
The strength and purposefulness of the Community is about to be tested by the EU which, through the European Commission, has indicated that it may take as many as eight Caribbean countries to arbitration under the EPA signed in 2008 for non-implementation of tariff cuts on EU goods entering their markets.
It is safe ground to say that the EU can determine that the failure to make the tariff cuts constitutes a dispute and, therefore, can take the matter to arbitration. The EPA does provide for a consultation process, and no doubt this will be invoked by the EU with each of the eight countries. While Jamaica has been identified by the EU as one of the eight countries, the others are yet to be officially named. Reliable sources indicate that Suriname is among the remaining seven.
But consultations will not necessarily lead to leniency by the EU. Indeed, because of their concern about ongoing negotiations with some African countries for EPAs, the EU is most unlikely to want to give any quarter lest it serve as a precedent for the bigger African countries whose markets are more significant to Europe.
It is important to recall that each of the eight Caribbean countries will have to engage the EU, through the European Commission, on their own since the EPA was signed between the 27-nation EU collectively and the Caribbean countries individually. Some of them will not have the resources to represent themselves in the consultations, and certainly will find arbitration proceedings prohibitively expensive.
A strong Caribbean community would establish joint machinery to support each of the eight countries in the consultation process to avoid arbitration. It would also assemble the means now to effectively review the EPA in October 2013 (and not early 2013 as I inadvertently stated in my last commentary) to make it realistic in present conditions, and fairer.
Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat
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