October 26, 2007

Independence and regional integration process


Tomorrow, October 27, 2007, the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, at home and in the diaspora, celebrate their 28th anniversary of the attainment of national independence. It has been almost three decades since the smaller islands in the Eastern Caribbean, stretching from Grenada in the south to St. Kitts/Nevis in the north, all took the bold step of joining the international community as independent nation states.{{more}} This followed the fruitless search for Caribbean unity from the ill-fated West Indian Federation through the various permutations of regional nationhood right to independence as separate national entities.

Significantly, just two years after independence, SVG teamed up with its newly-independent neighbours to establish the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). Beginning with a security and national disaster focus, the OECS itself has evolved to the point where it forms a tight inner concentric ring within the Caribbean Single Market, and the goal of full economic and political integration among these states is very much on the cards.

So how do these processes fit together? Is there any contradiction between the celebration of independent nationhood and the search for wider forms of unity? It is an undoubted fact of life that much has changed on the international stage since we took our first steps along the independence path, much of it to the detriment of mini-states like ours. The international trading climate and the pre-eminence of the “free trade” ideology have made it more and more difficult for small states to survive as “independent” entities. Even large, powerful nations today seek succour in larger trading and economic blocs.

The Caribbean, and the OECS in particular, has little choice in following this path. Fortunately for us, it blends well with our own historical and strategic realities, making it much easier to proceed along these lines. Yet, there are stumbling blocks, of our own creation, in our way. Among these are constitutional limitations and a false sense of petty nationalism, bringing with it blinkers and imagined barriers to political integration. These continue to hinder progress towards regional integration, even as the rest of the world moves in the opposite direction.

Take the European Union (EU) with whom we are negotiating a regional economic pact. In 1981 when the OECS was set up, there were but nine European states involved in the integration project. States such as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania were part of the Soviet bloc. Today, 27 of these developed nations sit on one side of the table negotiating with us, even as we argue among ourselves about so-called “illegal immigration” from sister Caribbean nations. Time and history are not on our side. As we revel in the achievements of national independence, let us reflect on how much further we can go and how much more we can achieve our goals of poverty eradication and sustainable development if we can get our integration process right.