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Constitutional reform and regional integration

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Each time Caribbean leaders meet, they reaffirm their commitment to the goal of regional integration, even if between that time and their previous reaffirmation little had been done to advance the process. Times of crisis and hardship which affect us all help to strengthen the case for such regional unity-economic, political or otherwise. So we can take it as a given that, in principle at least, the case for regional integration rests on solid ground. The problem occurs when one attempts to move from theory to practice.{{more}}

Then, all kinds of hurdles keep cropping up along the path, some petty, but with a resonance beyond their true significance. Others, born of ingrained distrust and insularity, but requiring clear thought and collective wisdom. Our experience has shown that getting over even the minor hurdles can pose problems and, at whatever level one takes it, bringing the region closer together is no mean task. It is a task nonetheless which must be undertaken, the deeper the level, the more sustainable, the faster it can be accomplished, the better for us all.

The world is certainly not waiting on us. Collective pressures are bearing down on the region, whether in the form of “upgrading” our status so that we no longer qualify for international funding on the most concessionary terms, or, as in the case of the recent G20 agreement, to crack down on offshore financial centres. We all feel the squeeze. Yet nearly half a century after the first English-speaking Caribbean nations gained independence, we remain as eleven separate nations, each fiercely defending its nation status, if not its independence itself. At the onset of the national independence process there was a broad commonality brought about by a shared colonial experience. Since then, as we have grown individually as nations, albeit unevenly, so, too, have those shared experiences, values and culture been modified in the newly independent settings. Today we each have our national anthems, national flags, national dress (save SVG, of course), national honours etc. There is a stronger identification of Trinis, Bajans, Lucians, Vincies than in the pre-independence period. We compete separately in the FIFA World Cup of Football. “We independent” is our proud boast.

Any attempt to forge deeper regional integration must take all the above-mentioned factors into consideration. There are several initiatives on the table, each being left to cool off until their proponents heat them over for public consumption. They cover plans for OECS union (total or partial), for some sort of OECS/Trinidad and Tobago link-up, or part thereof, and even a vague hint of a T&T/Barbados/OECS hook-up. Whatever the formulation, as soon as we move beyond the bounds of economic integration, itself a major challenge, we get into the more contentious realm of political unity and its implications for constitutional reform.

Every one of the countries committed to the integration process has a national constitution, courtesy the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The limitations of these current documents in the context of the 21st century are acknowledged by efforts to review and reform these constitutions. This process is in train in different countries, running at different paces and on different, if parallel, tracks. One day, should the goal of political integration be realized in the Caribbean, all will have to give way to a common document. Are the current initiatives sufficiently aware of and sensitive to this so as to be able to facilitate this ultimate act of trans-national unity, if and when it becomes desirable?

For sure, whatever our views about the practicality of a single Caribbean, English-speaking nation (Jamaica self-excluding), it would be remiss of those charged with redrafting our Constitutions if they do not do so in a manner so as to facilitate any change to a unified status. Our own Constitutional Review process has already noted this. Therefore, appropriate clauses which can be invoked when the necessity arises would be a minimum expectation from the current processes. These would not, by themselves, either bring about unity or remove the obstacles, real and imagined, in our path, but at least we would have one more tool at the ready.

In the meantime we need full and honest discussion, not in a sterile way but in a very practical context. What would one Caribbean nation mean for national identity for instance? Will we cease to be Vincies, Lucians, Bajans, Trinis? Where would our National Heroes fit in? In a collective pantheon? What about national honours and awards? As for matters like our World Cup (football) aspirations, our appetites whetted by previous success on the part of Jamaica and T&T, would we be willing to give up hopes of singular national glory for a collective regional bid in which no country would be guaranteed of individual representation?

Minor issues, one might say. But it is around such issues, not the grand macro ones that the regional integration effort may well flounder, for here is where there is room to play on emotions, ignoring the wider picture. That is why it is so vital for free and frank discussion at the level of the people themselves. Our leaders can prattle “until they weary” about all the grand structures and superstructures, it will be the little issues which will test our commitment to regionalism. Only by clearing these issues among us can we hope to clear the larger ones.

Each time Caribbean leaders meet, they reaffirm their commitment to the goal of regional integration, even if between that time and their previous reaffirmation little had been done to advance the process. Times of crisis and hardship which affect us all help to strengthen the case for such regional unity-economic, political or otherwise. So we can take it as a given that, in principle at least, the case for regional integration rests on solid ground. The problem occurs when one attempts to move from theory to practice.

Then, all kinds of hurdles keep cropping up along the path, some petty, but with a resonance beyond their true significance. Others, born of ingrained distrust and insularity, but requiring clear thought and collective wisdom. Our experience has shown that getting over even the minor hurdles can pose problems and, at whatever level one takes it, bringing the region closer together is no mean task. It is a task nonetheless which must be undertaken, the deeper the level, the more sustainable, the faster it can be accomplished, the better for us all.

The world is certainly not waiting on us. Collective pressures are bearing down on the region, whether in the form of “upgrading” our status so that we no longer qualify for international funding on the most concessionary terms, or, as in the case of the recent G20 agreement, to crack down on offshore financial centres. We all feel the squeeze. Yet nearly half a century after the first English-speaking Caribbean nations gained independence, we remain as eleven separate nations, each fiercely defending its nation status, if not its independence itself. At the onset of the national independence process there was a broad commonality brought about by a shared colonial experience. Since then, as we have grown individually as nations, albeit unevenly, so, too, have those shared experiences, values and culture been modified in the newly independent settings. Today we each have our national anthems, national flags, national dress (save SVG, of course), national honours etc. There is a stronger identification of Trinis, Bajans, Lucians, Vincies than in the pre-independence period. We compete separately in the FIFA World Cup of Football. “We independent” is our proud boast.

Any attempt to forge deeper regional integration must take all the above-mentioned factors into consideration. There are several initiatives on the table, each being left to cool off until their proponents heat them over for public consumption. They cover plans for OECS union (total or partial), for some sort of OECS/Trinidad and Tobago link-up, or part thereof, and even a vague hint of a T&T/Barbados/OECS hook-up. Whatever the formulation, as soon as we move beyond the bounds of economic integration, itself a major challenge, we get into the more contentious realm of political unity and its implications for constitutional reform.

Every one of the countries committed to the integration process has a national constitution, courtesy the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The limitations of these current documents in the context of the 21st century are acknowledged by efforts to review and reform these constitutions. This process is in train in different countries, running at different paces and on different, if parallel, tracks. One day, should the goal of political integration be realized in the Caribbean, all will have to give way to a common document. Are the current initiatives sufficiently aware of and sensitive to this so as to be able to facilitate this ultimate act of trans-national unity, if and when it becomes desirable?

For sure, whatever our views about the practicality of a single Caribbean, English-speaking nation (Jamaica self-excluding), it would be remiss of those charged with redrafting our Constitutions if they do not do so in a manner so as to facilitate any change to a unified status. Our own Constitutional Review process has already noted this. Therefore, appropriate clauses which can be invoked when the necessity arises would be a minimum expectation from the current processes. These would not, by themselves, either bring about unity or remove the obstacles, real and imagined, in our path, but at least we would have one more tool at the ready.

In the meantime we need full and honest discussion, not in a sterile way but in a very practical context. What would one Caribbean nation mean for national identity for instance? Will we cease to be Vincies, Lucians, Bajans, Trinis? Where would our National Heroes fit in? In a collective pantheon? What about national honours and awards? As for matters like our World Cup (football) aspirations, our appetites whetted by previous success on the part of Jamaica and T&T, would we be willing to give up hopes of singular national glory for a collective regional bid in which no country would be guaranteed of individual representation?

Minor issues, one might say. But it is around such issues, not the grand macro ones that the regional integration effort may well flounder, for here is where there is room to play on emotions, ignoring the wider picture. That is why it is so vital for free and frank discussion at the level of the people themselves. Our leaders can prattle “until they weary” about all the grand structures and superstructures, it will be the little issues which will test our commitment to regionalism. Only by clearing these issues among us can we hope to clear the larger ones.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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