It is with a degree of conviction, that we are on the right track, and with optimism for the future, that I assume Chairmanship of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). It is also at a time when the Conference of Heads of Government is being infused with new blood.
In welcoming the Most Honourable Andrew Holness, Prime Minister of Jamaica and the Honourable Allen Chastanet, Prime Minister of Saint Lucia to the Conference, I note that in the last two years, six of the 15 members of this Conference are new to the table.
I also welcome Dr. the Honourable Keith Rowley, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago who, while not attending his first meeting of the Conference, was elected after our meeting last July.
Their presence, through the electoral process, is an affirmation of our Community’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
The Conference will also continue to benefit from the experience of Dr. the Honourable Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and His Excellency Desire Bouterse, President of Suriname, both of whom were returned to office in the past year.
All the others continue to give unbroken service to the Conference and we value their contribution highly. This mix of experience and fresh perspectives in the leadership of our Community could only be beneficial and will serve to rejuvenate our integration movement.
I am not sure if it is by pure coincidence or divine intervention, but it so happens that I also take the Chair of CARICOM at a time when the world is still in a state of shock at Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) after 43 years of membership.
At a time when the rest of the world is moving towards regional integration in order to carve out an economic space in the global marketplace and to balance the might of the emerging superpowers, Britain has chosen to retreat to insular nationalism.
Already the political, economic and social fallout from this decision to go it alone is causing considerable concern within Britain, Europe and the rest of the world.
This Conference gives us a wonderful opportunity to seriously consider the effect that Britain’s exit from the European Union will have on CARICOM, and to demonstrate real leadership by showing the way forward.
After all, we have had a long and deep relationship with the United Kingdom, and Britain remains one of our most important trading partners, the largest source market for our primary industry, and a vital source of assistance on legal and financial matters.
So in my capacity as Chairman of the Conference of Heads of Government of CARICOM, I must make clear my position on the exit of the UK from the EU; and to suggest what CARICOM needs to do URGENTLY in response to this seismic eruption in the European Union, and the consequent inevitable shift in international relationships.
Let me begin by reminding us, especially the CARICOM skeptics, that the circumstances in the EU are completely different to those in CARICOM. There are two main reasons why the United Kingdom would want to leave the European Union at this point. The first is the historical fear of losing their sovereignty. From the British point of view nearly every nation in Europe has over the years, tried to conquer and rule Britain.
Secondly, EU citizenship brings with it, not only free movement but also automatic access to welfare and other benefits. This created anxieties in Britain where the average English voter saw membership of the EU as opening the floodgates for countless Europeans and refugees from Syria, Iraq and wherever there is conflict, to pour into their country through any of the EU ports of entry. This is something which Britain, still hamstrung by austerity measures, could not afford indefinitely.
On the other hand, CARICOM is the fulfillment of a long-standing aspiration of our peoples. It is an important staging post on the way to creating what scholars like Dr. Ralph Gonzalves call a unique “Caribbean civilization”.
The peoples of the Caribbean have demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that the human spirit is invincible. During the worst forms of deprivation they have continued to dream. In the midst of genocide, they dreamt of peace. In the midst of hatred they dreamt of tolerance and respect. In the midst of slavery they dreamt of freedom. And in the midst of poverty they continue to dream of prosperity. This ability to dream and strive for a better life aptly defines the Caribbean.
Since the advent of universal adult suffrage after World War II, we have made considerable progress, via the Federation, CARIFTA and CARICOM. We now have representative governments with the mandate to build nations in our own image and strive to realize the people’s vision of peace, freedom, tolerance, equal opportunities, prosperity and more equitable distribution of the wealth we all help to create.
Let me remind us that CARICOM is primarily a community. It has been built on the powerful emotions of empathy and caring for each other. At the individual level that fact is constantly being reinforced wherever and whenever our people interact. You just have to observe how Caribbean people have historically behaved in the Diasporas in Cuba, in Panama, in the Americas and in Europe.
At the national level, that care and concern that we have for each other demonstrate our sense of being part of a community. My country Dominica experienced this after the passage of Tropical Storm Erika last August. The outpouring of support from the Regional Community was tremendous and on behalf of the Government and people of Dominica, I express heartfelt thanks to the Governments and people of CARICOM.
This support continues with the Government of Guyana willingly accepting the responsibility to co-host this Meeting of the Conference as we are still in recovery mode. Thank you, President Granger and Secretary-General LaRocque for coming together with Dominica to make such fine arrangements for this Thirty-Seventh Meeting of the Conference.
Colleague Heads of Government, Ladies and Gentlemen, some of us may be ambivalent and hesitant about a closer relationship with CARICOM but let us not resolve to blindly imitate what happened in Britain a few days ago. Let us instead work together to strengthen our cooperation and collaboration to create a stronger, more vibrant community. Let us properly analyse and position ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise from this.
It may be that Britain’s exit from the EU will lead to renewed cooperation on better terms with the Commonwealth, and bring greater benefits to all, as we seek a safe and viable space in the global marketplace.
Let us therefore focus more closely on what needs to be done to strengthen CARICOM, to make it more economically competitive, and to generate the resources to sustain our togetherness.
Let me stress that we also have to prepare ourselves for other shocks that may come our way. For example, there is a probability that the Presidential elections in the United States of America in November may bring forth certain unanticipated challenges, including American insular nationalism. What we therefore need to do in the Caribbean is to take action to strengthen our solidarity to deal with any eventuality in our own front yard.
Colleague Heads of Government, Ladies and Gentlemen, these are not normal times. Our economies have been battered figuratively by the global financial and economic crisis, and literally, by natural disasters which have been the major contributor to our Region’s crushing debt burden.
Our resilience is being tested as never before. But we have proven time and again that we have it within us, as a collective, to not only withstand severe challenges but to seize opportunities to take us out of adversity.
We have had to be creative and innovative in order to survive. The most important lesson we have learned throughout our history, and which has been powerfully reinforced by the recent recession, is that no matter how noble and generous our promises are to our people, we cannot deliver unless we generate the resources to pay for them.
CARICOM must now put in place the building blocks to create even more opportunities going forward. Then it is up to us to be more action-oriented and use them effectively.
As we seek to advance the interests of our Community in this gathering over the next two days, I recall that in another forum I identified seven imperatives for us to be successful. These are:
A seamless market space connected by efficient and cost effective transportation;
A vibrant private sector promoting the development of an investor class;
Attractive investment opportunities;
A productive regionally integrated labour market, including a long range view of the skills needed, their movement and how work is done;
An efficient, regionally integrated capital market;
Solutions to problems relating to energy that powers economic activity;
Building resource competence and capabilities that make innovation possible.
Among these I wish to highlight the following: The first priority, and in my opinion, the most important imperative is: “A seamless market space connected by efficient and cost effective transportation”. The most powerful case for Regional integration is the need for a common market or free trade area with relatively free movement of human and material capital and services; and which offers incentives for, and benefits from, working together.
Primary among these would be lower tariffs, diversification of production according to comparative advantages and a large enough market to enjoy economies of scale. This is what CARICOM enables small nation states to do. But none of this is possible without an efficient and effective transport system.
Fellow Heads of Government, this being the case, I cannot understand why we have not completed the essential infrastructure to facilitate movement towards an effective free trade area, a meaningful Community or a Single Market and Economy.
Why has it proven so difficult to move people, goods and services cheaply and efficiently around the Caribbean?
Why is it cheaper to travel by air from Dominica to New York than it is to travel from Dominica to Guyana?
Why are St. Lucian bananas cheaper in London than in Barbados?
Why is it cheaper to phone a relative in London from Grenada than it is to phone a friend in St. Vincent?
Why can’t visitors from England or elsewhere, be offered an attractive package of different tourism products that draws on the unique natural beauty of each CARICOM state?
Why can’t we use maritime transport to bridge the Caribbean Sea?
There is no doubt whatsoever that the essential infrastructure to facilitate economic cooperation and growth in CARICOM is incomplete.
Similar questions can be asked about the second priority which is: “The growth of a vibrant private sector promoting the development of an entrepreneurial and investor class”. Globalization with the use of modern technology by the new BRICS and MINT superpowers, to produce standard goods is making traditional jobs redundant.
The only way we can tackle the growing problem of unemployment, is to train a larger proportion of our population, especially our better educated/trained newcomers to the job market, how to spot niches in the global economy and create their own employment in the process of meeting the identified needs.
Obviously, access to investment opportunities and capital must be the third priority. So far St. Kitts and Nevis has led the way globally by being the first country to introduce Citizenship by Investment Programmes (CIPs). Now such programmes are commonplace around the world, and in some cases have been abused. However, I still believe that with the requisite due diligence of applicants, CIPs can provide the desperately-needed capital for entrepreneurial development.
Let us not ignore the fact that we have made some progress with almost all these seven priorities. For example, we have seen movement in the fourth priority, which is a productive regionally integrated labour market, including a long range view of the skills needed their movement and how work is done.
For a start there is in place an agreement that bestows on CARICOM nationals the right to an automatic six-month stay in another Member State.
The oversight of this right is in the safe hands of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). The highly significant rulings of the CCJ in matters of free movement, clearly emphasizes the value of this Court. I believe that the confidence that we have shown in obtaining our political independence must now be extended to seizing our regional judicial sovereignty, as has been done by Guyana, Barbados, Belize and Dominica. I want to encourage our other Member States to take the necessary steps to accede to the appellate jurisdiction of the Court.
Colleague Heads of Government, Ladies and Gentlemen, there are several other pressing issues that we face in taking CARICOM forward. Among these are the effects of Climate Change, which threatens our very survival. Another is the severe drought conditions which have afflicted many of our nations in recent months.
Ironically, most of our Member States are surrounded by water while our continental colleagues are blessed with many large rivers. Increasingly water is being viewed as a valuable resource that, if left unmanaged, would be in short supply across the globe. I am convinced that, if properly managed and with adequate investment and use of technology, the supply of fresh water in the Region could be another avenue for innovation and creation of a major economic opportunity.
Faced with the threat of climate change, we have to take steps to both adapt to that phenomenon and to mitigate its effects. The use of costly fossil fuels has long been associated with rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is therefore in our economic and environmental interest to explore the huge potential that exists in the Caribbean for exploiting renewable sources of energy, such as sun, wind and geothermal.
With appropriate technology and investment, we can therefore maximize the economic potential of these natural resources in an effort to reduce our energy costs, our dependence on fossil fuels and our carbon footprint. We have begun to drive that process with the recent establishment of the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CCREEE) in Barbados.
A common factor running through all, and which needs to be put right and strengthened in CARICOM, is the efficiency with which we make decisions and implement them. Significant time and resources have been spent by our Technical Officers and the CARICOM Secretariat in carrying forward the mandates from our Councils. Some of these issues have occupied our attention for many years without final resolution. The Institutions of our Community must operate more efficiently to remove these long-standing items off the Regional agenda. This will certainly allow for swifter action to be taken on the more immediate issues.
I wish to emphasize however, that it takes two hands to clap. CARICOM is not about imposing policies and programmes on Member States. It is about empowering Member States by democratic means. A major responsibility therefore falls at the level of Member States to get things moving.
For example, we have agreed on any number of measures to advance the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) and our officials have completed all the necessary technical work.
However, due to the failure of our Member States to give the go ahead, those critical measures remain unattended.
There are several other cases which can be listed as demonstrating that there can be movement in other areas of the CSME. Their completion could enhance our competitiveness and create considerable opportunities for our Community. These include:
- The establishment of a Labour Market Information System.
- A Single Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Space.
- A Regional Legal Framework of Cooperation to Combat Crime and Enhance Security.
- Legislation to help control Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).
In all these cases our officials have completed the roadmaps towards achieving the various objectives. However, despite valiant attempts, we have not yet been able to bring together the Ministers responsible for these areas to consider the roadmaps and approve them. We definitely need action by Member States to complete this process of change.
So, in conclusion I want to urge us, my fellow Heads of Government, to use whatever powers we have at our disposal to seek to successfully conclude many of the outstanding matters on our agenda and to work towards the speedy and effective implementation of matters agreed upon. We must all play our part to remove the clearly identified and agreed stumbling blocks to deeper regional integration.
In the words of one of our Founding Fathers, the Honorable Forbes Burnham, made almost fifty years ago, but which could just as well be made today, “either we integrate, or we perish, unwept, unhonoured”. These words still ring true today. I look forward therefore Colleagues, to all of us playing our part in what is now “OUR TIME TO DELIVER”.
I thank you.