Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders began their 37th summit here on Monday night in the shadows of the vote taken by Britons late last month to exit the 43-year-old European Union.
All seven speakers, including the incoming CARICOM chairman, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, made reference to the vote and urged Caribbean people not to harbour any such thought in relation to the regional integration movement.
However, the newly elected St Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet said “Brexit” had “put the survival of our integration into focus.
“People are once again asking what is in it for me and my country. What if our people ask for such a referendum? Are we certain of their response? Have we done enough to create that connection between our people and the community?
“Why are we so afraid to do more with an organization that has demonstrated that we can punch above our weight in the international arena?
“If we are an organization whose essence is a better life for the whole, then let our decisions legitimately reflect that principle. Let us trust our councils and our work teams,” Chastanet said, urging that these institutions become “more engaged to implementation when they have the opportunity”.
However, Skerrit said as the new chairman of the 15-member CARICOM, he was forced to make clear his position on “what CARICOM needs to do urgently in response to this seismic eruption in the European Union, and the consequent inevitable shift in international relationships”.
He warned CARICOM skeptics that the circumstances in the EU were completely different to those in the region, noting that Britain had historical fear of losing its sovereignty and that 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, he said CARICOM was primarily a community “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,” he said.
St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, one of the longest serving regional leaders, also defended the regional integration movement, despite what he referred to as its imperfections.
He dismissed critics who describe CARICOM as being “comatose”, arguing that they had not fully understood the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas that established CARICOM.
“CARICOM is not a Federation, CARICOM is not a unitary state, it is not even a confederation,” he told the audience, reminding that it was made up of independent sovereign states.
“Clearly there are things which we need to do to deepen the integration process,” the Vincentian leader acknowledged, while urging the region “not to denounce our achievements over the last years”.
While noting there was much “hysteria” over Brexit, he urged the region to look at the UK vote as an opportunity for the region to consolidate and work on the positives it may have.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness said that while most countries did not anticipate that Britons would vote to leave the European Union, it was important for the region to discuss the likely impact on areas such as trade.
He also said CARICOM must use the opportunity to assess “our own region” even as it continues to face various threats, including that of climate change, rising criminal activities and illegal drugs.
Holness said that after 43 years “we can say much has been accomplished [in CARICOM] . . . . However I can say, you will all agree . . . we have much more to do.
However, even with all its challenges, Holness said “CARICOM remains a well-respected regional bloc at international fora”.
During the ceremony, all seven speakers paid tribute to late Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Patrick Manning, who died last weekend of cancer.
They spoke of his strong regionalism, with the CARICOM Chairman describing him as “a very committed Caribbean man”.
His memory and his efforts will certainly last in our memories for a very long time,” Skerrit said, adding that Dominica would observe two days of national mourning in his honour.