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Dr. Gonsalves and the concentric circles


The third consultation on the proposed OECS Economic Union was held at the Peace Memorial Hall here in St.Vincent on Monday, June 16. I was unable to attend but heard brief news ‘clippings’ on the BBC and on local news programmes and have now, as I am about to write this column, received a copy of our Prime Minister’s speech. {{more}} I was particularly struck by his address and searched the regional newspapers for responses to it. Up to the time of writing this column on Wednesday, June 18, there had been marked silence. Maybe it is still too early and perhaps by the time this paper reaches the news stands there will be some reaction in the region.

Over the past two years, in particular, there had been much talk about the CSME being the way forward for the Caribbean. The Caribbean Single Market was supposed to have paved the way for the deeper Single Economic Space. Certain categories of workers were to be able to move and work in the region without work permits and the necessary mechanisms were being put in place to facilitate this and other relevant matters. Then one began to hear more and more about an OECS economic union and wondered about the many ‘concentric circles’ as Dr. Gonsalves would call them. I have often wondered, too, how neatly these were going to fit and relate to each other and about the many administrative levels that would be involved.

Dr. Gonsalves’ address at the St.Vincent and the Grenadines consultation has captured my attention because I now fully understand what have been the motivating factors behind this OECS venture. He is quite frank in putting forward his case for the OECS Economic Union. As he puts it, “In a sense, the quest for an OECS Economic Union is a recognition by the OECS member-countries that the ‘special and differential’ position elaborated for them within the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas is inadequate and that the promise of a CARICOM-wide Single Economy is unlikely to be fulfilled either at all or in a manner sufficiently advantageous to them.” (My emphasis) Wow! Why had they been driving us down that road? He then admits that “we are unlikely to see in the foreseeable future the realisation of a common monetary policy or a common currency in CARICOM.” Neither are we likely to see ‘an integrated judiciary’ or “an enhanced institutionalised ‘supranationality’ in political decision-making which is required to transform a ramshackle political-administrative apparatus in CARICOM into a purposive, matching vehicle correspondingly, for the Single Economy venture.”

So far so good! I happen to accept most of this. Then what follows becomes even more interesting. Our Prime Minister mentions some of the stumbling blocks. Among them the politics of ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago (and Guyana); “ a mistaken sense of ‘uniqueness, specialness, and separation’ among the large sections of the Barbadian population.” Those and others mentioned, he suggested, were “destined in the foreseeable future to keep a CARICOM as a ‘community of sovereign states’ in which several of its member-states jealously guard a vaunted and pristine sovereignty.” But he refers to proposals, which have some validity for him, for formal closer political ties with the same Trinidad and Tobago and to a lesser extent Barbados and Guyana. He does refer to the family ties with Trinidad and Tobago held particularly by SVG and Grenada. In the case of Barbados it is based on the fact that it is a major hub for the OECS member countries in several areas of activity. At the same time, he is of the view that while “All these ideas or proposals possess validity in themselves … none undermines the on-going push towards a closer union of OECS MEMBER – countries.”

The factors that contribute to keeping CARICOM ‘a community of sovereign states’ in which members ‘jealously guard a vaunted and pristine sovereignty’, are certainly not limited to the non-OECS countries within CARICOM. Serious issues that have long affected the regional agenda are still at play and Prime Minister Gonsalves acknowledges this. As he puts it, “Island chauvinism, a potential overreach by regional bureaucrats, and the petty politics of village states are the debilitating interlopers which threaten to undermine the efficacy of the proposed economic union enterprise and its necessary and consequentially altered political superstructure.” How do we overcome these?

I have not seen the draft proposed treaty to replace the Treaty of Basseterre and so speak without reference to it. Dr. Gonsalves makes a strong case for the OECS economic union, building on what he refers to as a veritable supranational institutional architecture. And perhaps there is indeed ‘a greater collegiality in decision-making and implementation’ within the ranks of the OECS. I am not sure that “History, culture, demography and geographic propinquity” make a stronger case for a closer union of the sub region. Barbados, of course, is nearer to SVG than SVG is to Dominica, as is the case with Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago. We might even be closer culturally to Barbados than to say Dominica. Perhaps, practically, it might be easier to overcome the hurdles blocking the move to a single economic space within the confines of the OECS than the broader CARICOM but we have for years been arguing the case for a broader regional union based on history and culture and geography, for really given the state of communications in today’s world we are all neighbours.

Dr. Gonsalves admits that the movement to a single economic space within CARICOM has ‘implications for the criss-crossing development of an OECS Economic Union’ Really my concern after reading Dr. Gonsalves’ address is about the future of the CSME. He says, despite everything else that “for historic and challenging contemporary reasons, the quest for a deeper union in CARICOM, too, must continue. We must strive ceaselessly for this also, without doubt.” I have questions about this. Is the objective really to get ‘an expressed special place (be) carved out (for it) within the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas of CARICOM”? Will it be another hurdle to be overcome in that quest for a broader economic space?

It was indeed good to hear the goodly comrade suggest that “all relevant ideas contend without bitterness, divisiveness, or a debilitating learned helplessness”. I must admit to being unsure what he really means by ‘debilitating learned helplessness’ but certainly if he had been guided by the idea of making relevant ideas contend without bitterness, the matter of governance in this country would have been much more healthy. It is the existence of some of these issues and concerns at the national level that often lead to a certain degree of scepticism about ventures into the regional landscape and about the factors that motivate those moves.