The special relationship Editorial
Stabroek News
May 26, 2004

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Although it was recognised that certain major changes in the trading arrangements in the agricultural sector of the European Union will menace the existence of the Caricom sugar and rice industries and the livelihood of thousands of families, the Guyana delegation together with the other Caricom delegations at the talks with the UK government in London a fortnight ago apparently did not seek to establish some continuing consultation mechanism which would ensure steadily that their problems are taken into account. This would have been in keeping with the special relationship which it is felt underpins the Caricom UK forum which met on 10-12 May.

Caricom was represented by the Foreign Ministers of Member States, in Guyana's case by the Foreign Minister together with the Minister for Foreign Trade and International Economic Cooperation. The UK delegation was led by the UK's Foreign Minister together with the Minister for UK-Caribbean relations.

If one goes by the Communique (and there is little else to go by) the conclusions were at best tentative. In the case of sugar the Communique issued by the forum records that "Caribbean Ministers emphasised the importance of continued access to EU markets to sustain the industry and avoid further economic hardship". In response UK Ministers explained that reform of the EU Sugar Regime was inevitable. The disturbing implications of the UK response are as follows. The price paid to Guyana/Caricom and other ACP sugar producers is tied to the subsidised price paid to EU beet sugar farmers. That subsidy will in all probability be reduced or removed under the reform of the regime. This will inevitably mean a lower price for ACP sugar producers. In the case of Guyana and Caricom producers the new price may not be remunerative.

Likewise, if the complaint initiated by Australia, Brazil and Thailand and now being reviewed by a WTO panel against the EU's sugar regime succeeds it will have similar effects.

The London talks went no further than agreeing that "Caribbean concerns should be taken into account as reform proposals were developed and that appropriate assistance to Caribbean countries should be considered in order to help them to adjust to the changes in the trading regime for sugar." In fact the reform proposals are now well advanced.

The position on the rice industry was equally non-committal. Caribbean Ministers "expressed concern over the impact on the regional (rice) industry of the reform of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Both sides acknowledged the potential consequences the rice industry and the wider Caribbean societies would experience if trade liberalisation resulting from the reform were to erode returns from the UK market in particular and the European Union as a whole."

Caricom Ministers grandly called upon the UK to consider a Resolution adopted recently by the ACP group. In this connection the Minister of Foreign Trade disclosed last week (SN May 21) that the recent ACP meeting in Botswana had called for immediate compensation for ACP rice producers on a similar basis to that paid to EU rice farmers as a result of a 50% reduction in price paid to them. The ACP is reported to be seeking a meeting with the EU on this matter.

On the other hand it should be noted that in respect of rice the EU a year ago provided a grant of 23 million ECUs for restructuring/ modernising the Caribbean rice industry in Guyana and Suriname. Certain projects have been identified.

One makes these points on the lack of commitments on vital Caricom interests because the background to the forum is that, as already noted, it flows from and is considered to reflect, a special relationship between Caricom English-speaking states and the UK. The relationship is founded on the perception that these were the oldest of colonies who not only spoke English as their only language but whose culture and institutions including cricket were directly shaped by British institutions and values . Many of their citizens until the coming of independence spoke of the UK as the mother country and their civil servants looked forward to going on "home leave" to the UK.

How much of that amalgam of sentiment and ideas still exists? Some of it does. David Jessop in his Sunday column in Sunday Stabroek, May 16 in which he deals with the outcome of the forum remarks that "Unlike other high level meetings it is conducted in a manner that is both formal and intimate at the same time. This seemingly contradictory approach is a reflection of the still strong special relationship that remains between the Anglophone Caribbean and the UK."

Yet much has fundamentally changed. The West Indies, to use its former name, now has linkages not only or even mainly with the UK. And it is not a situation of linkages so much as one of pulls and pressures. As Dr Vaughn Lewis has said finely "We are wedged into the crevices of the relationship between Europe and America...", a situation of which one was firmly reminded by the power configuration into which the Haiti situation was so quickly thrust. Then there are the pulls of the sub-region leading to the increasingly imperative need to speak Spanish. Moreover the maintenance of links with Africa and Asia are seen no longer as just a valued heritage but as a diplomatic counterweight essential to the diplomacy of a group of very small states.

And there has been fundamental change on the other side. Arguably the primacy of the UK relationships no longer derives from the foundation of an empire, metamorphosed into a Commonwealth of nations. Even the Commonwealth linkages are under strain. Two states which play (together with Canada) the dominant role in funding the Commonwealth administrative and consultation mechanisms, are now firmly part of the coalition of the willing led by the US. Moreover to make the point beyond argument, the UK will shortly "chair" two most powerful bodies, the European Union and the G8, the group of the eight most powerful industrialised countries who perceive themselves as the directorate of the world.

Yet as Jessop maintains, the forum provides a lubricant for the diplomatic exchanges with the UK. This was its fourth biennial meeting. Previous meetings were held in Nassau, the Bahamas in 1998, in London 2000, and here in Georgetown in April 2002.

In Georgetown a decision was reached which goes to the heart of the special relationship. In recognition of the fact that the UK was a powerful member of the international bodies to which Caricom had no entrée, as for example the EU Council and the G8, it was agreed that the UK would ensure that vital Caricom interests are presented and taken into account in those fora. Hence, there would be a UK-Caribbean transmission mechanism. The UK scholar Peter Clegg describes the mechanism as follows: "In practice it was agreed that the UK should inform Caribbean leaders of the timing of international meetings that are likely to deal with issues that might impact on the Caribbean and also their outcomes. Further the mechanism would give the Caribbean leaders an opportunity to advise the UK about their positions on particular issues."

This was clearly a decision of the highest importance. But is it working? Was its operation reviewed at the forum jut concluded? More importantly, does the Caricom side either as a grouping or individual member states prepare the well researched briefs to support possible UK interventions?

On the latter point Jessop, assessing the outcome of the recent meeting, observes that in presenting the important issues Caricom "failed to give any indication of where the Caribbean is trying to reach ultimately... creating the impression that the region is in transition to uncertainty". That is the crucial point. In a time of rapid changes on markets and prices driven by liberalisation no assurance on markets and prices will be given except for limited transition periods in which the developing state will be expected to formulate and implement a programme for modernisation or the development of new industries not dependent on preferential markets. Guyana's sugar industry is a good example of this with the forthcoming installation of a modern factory, the enhancement of productivity, the introduction of new products including refined sugar and the development of new markets including the increasingly important Caricom market. Even special and differential treatment is seen by the EU as only of limited application until a higher level of development is reached; although it can be argued that some small states have natural intrinsic disabilities.

Alas, awareness of this seemingly irreversible trend apparently does not yet inform Caricom negotiating positions. Transitions are seen as buying political breathing space while waiting, like the character in Dickens, for something to turn up.