July 17, 2007

An Uneasy Integration

Sun Jul 15 2007
By Jeff Cumberbatch
Source: Barbados Advocate

ANOTHER CARICOM heads of government summit comes to a close, with the usual grand promises of increased co-operation, the hopeful expressions of confidence and the lengthy communiqué couched in the language of the mandarin. We shall see. However, it would be reckless to ignore the fact that at the popular level, where regional integration should be not only a felt but a lived reality, there is an almost palpable disconnect between the discourse of officialdom and that of an increasingly vocal number so far as this is concerned.

It can be sensed in the growing stridency of anti-Guyanese sentiment, especially on the populist electronic media. This is likely to vary at any given time from discomfort with their numbers to our unaccommodating lack of geographical space to an anecdotal innovation in local criminal techniques. We must never be allowed to forget that these are a people who have experienced the politics of racialism, a potential contaminating factor in a pristine Barbados where there is no racial, social or other division. It can be heard in the calls for restrictions on the property rights of those who are not Barbadian, however this protean classification may be defined. In an era of globalisation, such views seem at least peculiar; in an age of vaunted regional integration, they are positively bizarre.

They may reflect a Caribbean attitude, however. Globalisation and integration may be conceptually compelling realities at this time, but neither must be permitted to impede our sovereign agenda of business as usual, nor do some of us care in the least to take advantage of the opportunities offered by these phenomena -- "We are doing quite nicely as we are, thank you ever so much" . One group in a neighbouring island some years ago expressed horror at my suggestion that one logical extension of CSME was that our present nationalities would eventually become irrelevant. I suspect that this is not a minority reaction regionally.

So our governors pro tempore will cheerfully sign onto global and regional treaties which envision the opening of our markets and borders while popular sentiment insists that we keep them firmly shut. Ruritania is for Ruritanians first! So, alas, the Caribbean Court of Justice limps along to what seems the inevitable demise of its initially conceived format; work permits remain a regulatory sine qua non in a purported single economic space which guarantees the right of establishment and freedom of movement; and some continue vainly, in spite of everything, to imagine a single currency sometime hence. There is always the talk, but are our people prepared to walk?

This disconnect between official reality and popular discourse presents a fertile field for opposition politics in the member states. An appeal to nationalism is unlikely to fail and, in a context where one fears an end to assumed entitlements, that message becomes even more cogent. It is this which might explain the recent conditional promise by David Thompson, the Leader of the Opposition, that should the ink still be dry on any deal for the acquisition of Barbados Shipping & Trading when his party assumes office, he will put a stop to the transaction. Of course, for varying reasons, this statement would have resonated with a substantial segment of the population, many of whom would not have given even a passing thought to precisely how such might be achieved. Of course, there would be those who, for varying reasons, would oppose this position but, equally, would not have considered its im/possibility. So we are assured, once again, of an absence of reasoned discourse; local politics as usual.

While I do recognise and concede the obvious political value of Thompson's proposed strategy, it is not one to which I am immediately attracted. For one, it is not clear what criteria, or criterion even, would qualify BS&T for special protection relative to other local concerns. Second, given the nature of company ownership, a rescue of BS&T by State action might raise all sorts of political queries should others not be similarly assisted in future. Third, there might be an insalutary effect on Barbados' investment reputation unless it is made clear that this is an exceptional case. For me, it is a veritable Pandora's Box and, in the unforgettable dictum of one politician (not local), should we open it we don't know what Trojan horses are likely to jump out.

Precisely how Thompson would achieve his objective is not for me to advise; though those who are minded to inquire further should consider that no freedom is absolute and that the public/national interest once established is an overarching consideration. Moreover, his proposed policy recourse is not necessarily abhorrent in a liberal democracy. Legislation aimed at regulating takeover bids may be found in France ("economic patriotism", Switzerland, Japan and even in some US jurisdictions. This, in spite of the US constitutional mandate even in some US jurisdictions. This, in spite of the US constitutional mandate that " [n]o State shall pass any law impairing the Obligation of Contracts&" In Germany, in 1999, the then Chancellor came to the defence of Mannesman AG when it was under threat of a takeover from Vodafone Air Touch plc of Britain, arguing that the bid could "destroy the culture of the company".

The time has now come for all of us to decide what will be the nature of our integration, if we are to have one. I do not mean in respect of what our leaders say, or what the international documents stipulate. I mean the collective view of regional citizens, however this may be identified. The result might give cause for surprise to some.

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