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A chance for real regional unity?

A very interesting news item appeared on page A3 of The Gleaner newspaper in Jamaica on April 27, last under the headline: Caricom heads to determine region’s future.

According to the story, Jamaican Prime Minister PJ Patterson told the House of Representatives during his contribution to the 2005/2006 budget debate that he had written to his colleague Prime Ministers on April 18 to put forward a proposal for a meeting between Caricom heads of government and regional Leaders of the Opposition to determine the future of the region and its institutions.

Prime Minister Patterson has proposed that such a meeting be held in Jamaica prior to the next Heads of Government summit which will be held in St Lucia. According to Prime Minister Patterson: “The responses I have received so far are supportive of that suggestion.”

This is a most interesting development which is music to my ears. On January 28 this year, I had the distinct honour of delivering the Eleventh Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Lecture in St Lucia to a distinguished audience that included Her Excellency Dame Pearlette Louisy, the Governor General of St Lucia.

I used the occasion to say the following:

“Can our political leaders on all sides reach out to one another on the basis that regional unity is a laudable goal and that the differences of opinion on the policy issues can be worked out by debate and dialogue between them? This can be done without it appearing to be a sign of weakness.

“Caricom Heads of Government meet frequently in an official sense. The nature of our political systems is such that Caricom Leaders of the Opposition never meet and there is no formal forum for such an event to take place.

“The irony is that these Leaders of the Opposition may become tomorrow’s Prime Ministers, or some of them may be yesterday’s Prime Ministers. What is their level of engagement with the Caricom Secretariat?

“What responsibility do they have to carry while they are in the political wilderness? Is this one way of advancing the agenda of regional unity by making the role of the opposition meaningful at the level of Caricom and thrusting responsibility upon them at the same time?

“I put this forward as a means of forcing regional governments to acknowledge that political engagement between the countries of the region must not be confined only to Governments owing to the nature of our political systems. The process of government must be seen to include those who are likely to be in power, as well as those who were previously in power and may get a second chance.”

I also included this part of my speech in this column on January 30, 2005.

It is very pleasing indeed to see that one Caricom prime minister has decided to do something about the future of regional unity by engaging the official Opposition in the region in a meaningful dialogue about the future of the region. That is the only way that political consensus can be found if special parliamentary majorities and referenda are required to make regional institutions become a reality.

According to Prime Minister Patterson: “I regard it as one of the definitive contributions I can make to the process of regional integration before I depart the scene.”

I shall be first in line to praise Prime Minister Patterson for taking this initiative, because, as I see it, there is no other way to forge consensus on regional issues if the official Opposition is always excluded. Today’s opposition can always become tomorrow’s government under our political arrangements.

Without a pre-existing dialogue on regional unity that cuts across the political divide in all of the countries of the region, an opposition that becomes a government can unravel a lot of valuable work that has been done in building up a regional institution, because it was not a part of determining the agenda for that valuable work.

Now that a Caricom Prime Minister has taken the first bold step towards an attempt at real unity, one can only hope that Caricom Heads of Government will rise to the occasion and engage all of the Leaders of the Opposition from across the region in a serious dialogue about regional institutions.

Both the Heads of Government and the Leaders of the Opposition must be prepared to make compromises, so that a feeling of inclusiveness will emerge in such a way that their supporters on both sides will be able to get a sense that regional unity belongs to all of them, and not just to the ruling party for the time being.

If constitutional reform cannot be easily achieved on the domestic front, it may be achieved more readily on the regional front. At the moment, the Caribbean Court of Justice only has two countries that can claim to be full members in both the original and the appellate jurisdictions.

This is nothing short of an embarrassment and the only way to advance this further will be to get the views of the regional opposition parties, so that appropriate legislation can be taken to the various parliaments and, where necessary, joint appeals to the population by governing and opposition parties can be made for the referenda, as the case may be.

Regional unity and domestic policy must be separated so that there is a similarity of views on regional institutions (as icons) which are completely divorced from the local issues that every population must deal with in relation to their governments and oppositions.

Political change in individual countries ought not to bring with it regional instability and uncertainty about key institutions.

Prime Minister Patterson has made the first step. Let us hope that other Caricom Heads of Government will step forward to make public pronouncements on this initiative in the spirit in which PJ Patterson has advanced it.

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