Breakfast with Blair
The View from Europe
By David Jessop (Executive Director of the Caribbean Council for Europe)
November 23, 2003
On December 2, over breakfast, up to nine Caribbean heads of Government will meet in London with the British Prime Minister. They will be on their way to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Such meetings have a history. Originally British prime ministers would set aside time during gatherings of Commonwealth heads of government to meet privately with Caribbean leaders. Their objective was to discuss regional and international issues in a relaxed environment. However, this came to an abrupt end when Britain's new Labour government came to power. At his first Commonwealth summit, Prime Minister Blair set aside previous practice and to the annoyance of Caribbean governments subsequently also found it difficult to find time to meet with them individually when they were in London.
This has since changed, but the sense that remains in the region is that at the highest levels of the British government there is no longer the affinity with the Caribbean and the Commonwealth that had existed under previous Conservative and Labour administrations.
Perhaps this should not be surprising given the extraordinary changes that the world has been though in recent years. Today, Britain's objective is to project its influence and economic power in ways that are very different to those that prevailed in the world that brought independence to the region and forged the thinking of many of its present leaders.
The consequence is that many of the region specific issues that trouble the Caribbean no longer matter either to Britain or to the newer generation of European politicians and officials. Their thinking is less about special relationships, family and geography and more about pragmatism and opportunity. This means that the frustrating detail of trying to manage small, inherently unviable but sovereign Caribbean States is little understood. Unlike their predecessors, few politicians in the developed world have an affinity with the problems of middle-ranking developing economies let alone the prior colonial experience of trying to administer small nations. The result is that understanding has diminished, contact is less frequent and meetings often involve steep learning curves.
The December breakfast has a potential agenda so vast that it is hard to understand how it will be managed. If ten heads of government including Prime Minister Blair all wish to speak, take coffee and a cooked breakfast, it is hard to see how much business can be transacted in the limited time that each will have to present their views.
Officials argue that this is to miss the point. In part the value, they say, is that the British Prime Minister and his ministers and senior officials will have taken careful note of the extensive briefing that has been prepared.
This means, they suggest, that the Prime Minister will have had to focus in detail on issues that rarely reach his desk. They also point to the personal chemistry that such meetings create and the fact that many of the issues will subsequently be covered in depth when Caribbean foreign ministers meet the British Foreign Secretary in London at the UK/Caribbean forum. Held every two years, the next such event is scheduled to take place in May 2004.
Having said all this, one only has to consider some of the possible matters that may be discussed to realise that almost every issue requires time. Zimbabwe and its ability to split the Commonwealth on racial lines; sugar and bananas; revitalising the World Trade Organisation (WTO) process and terrorism and security, all warrant extensive discussion.
This week in Miami a form of understanding was reached on how to try to achieve agreement on implementing a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2005. This provides a framework within which many of the most controversial trade issues will now become either the subject of bilateral discussion between nations in the Americas and the US, or be transferred from the FTAA agenda for future discussion in the agriculture round at the WTO.
It is a compromise that suggests that in time Brazil and the US may come to terms, on the FTAA, that the Caribbean will be eased in with special provisions and that hemispheric free trade will become a reality.
Just as significantly, the region has agreed that in February of next year it will open the second phase of EPA negotiations with the EU. These will focus on establishing by 2008 arrangements with Europe that are analogous to a free trade agreement but will be introduced asymmetrically.
If pursued by all nations in the region to their logical conclusion, both sets of negotiations will change the relationship between the Caribbean and its hemispheric neighbours and expand and diversify the nature of the region's association with a Europe that from next May will consist of twenty-five nations.
When Caribbean leaders meet with Tony Blair they will receive a warm welcome, but beneath the polite surface there remains in London concern about whether the region has understood how these developments will affect the dimensions of the relationship with the UK. While Britain remains willing to help in London through the exercise of its influence, it no longer feels any compulsion to do much more, xcepting where matters touch on its self-interest. Although rarely stated, it seems that ultimately the UK together with its partners in the EU see much of their role in the long term as facilitating the eventual integration of the Caribbean into the Americas.
This may not be welcome in the region.
Some may prefer a relationship that places the Caribbean somewhere between the US and Europe until China together with others is able to change the balance of global power.
International relationships are about an uneasy mix of trust, influence and power, combined with agreement or differences over ideology, culture and religion.