Caricom and popular sentiment
As the region prepares for the thirty first meeting of Heads of Government, it is clear that despite sporadic rhetoric to the contrary, pan-Caribbean integration is stagnating and that weak or no economic growth threatens what little unity is left.
In its place the abiding trend is towards sub-regional integration between nearer neighbours with complimentary economies.
Thus, Trinidad and Guyana are looking to deepen relations; the OECS is now well advanced in its process of integration; and the larger nations at the western end of the Caribbean are quietly investigating ways in which they might strengthen their economic ties.
So pervasive has this approach become that it is hard not to conclude that the idea of a Caribbean single market and economy that embraces all of the nations of Cariforum might only occur at some hard to determine date in the future, as a progression out of a number of viable sub-regional economic relationships.
This is not to suggest that the emotional or intellectual commitment to the regional cause has gone, but to note that real politik during a recession and the stresses associated with managing nations - each with their own economic and political requirements - are pushing the region apart, making decision making difficult and delaying the most likely consequence.
Consensus and delivery
Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead of constructing a grandiose meeting agenda, into which it sometimes seems everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown, it would make much more sense for Heads to focus more on those areas where consensus and delivery is possible.
That is to say if such meetings spent more time on issues that enhanced co-operation at a functional level, and encouraged a shared sense of purpose, a new sense of confidence might emerge that that could provide greater regional and international credibility for Caricom.
Looking back it is hard to identify any meeting of Heads in recent years that could be described as having given ordinary Caribbean citizens a reason to believe regionalism might matter or could play a role that in some way enhances their nation or their own interests and future.
Identifying issues that capture the public imagination may seem insubstantial in comparison to the big economic questions that leaders have to wrestle with, but it is an important part of what is needed if regionalism and regional solutions to problems are ever to have the popular legitimacy.
Issues of common concern are not hard to identify.
They relate to the alarming rise in crime across the region and the need for a more joined up approach; the collapse in the profitability of the tourism sector and the long term structural problems that will arise if this is not addressed; the decision by the British and other governments to press ahead with increased taxes on travel to the region... the list goes on.
There are also issues that require closure.
If this cannot be achieved it is hard to see how what has been agreed with Europe can be implemented; how the broader regional integration required to make viable trade agreements such as the one being negotiated with Canada will ever become real; or how the economic and political weight in the world of a region with 35m people (as opposed to one with 5.5m English speakers) will ever be realised.
There is of course no substitute for the full and effective revitalisation of Caricom or better still its re-emergence as Cariforum, but until all Caribbean economies recover it is hard to imagine any willingness at a national level to cede the executive authority necessary to make this happen.
Without popular support for pan-Caribbean integration and greater transparency on the part of government and regional institutions, the cynicism with which both regional integration and the Caribbean political class have come to be seen, will remain.
And for as long as significant and dynamic economies such as the Dominican Republic are isolated within their own region, a truly viable and integrated economy will remain a dream.
It is of course easier to be critical than constructive but without these and other changes relating to structure and leadership, the seemingly labyrinthine bureaucracy that surrounds decision-making and the pervasive sense real or otherwise, of delay, it is hard to see how Caricom can be more than a vehicle for co-ordination and giving focus to a disparate region.
Possible alternative institutions
Speaking to politicians and senior officials in Europe and North America about regional integration and the Caribbean’s institutions it is clear that there is a growing desire to find where possible alternative institutions to work through.
This may not make happy reading for the many good people within Caricom but it is what is being said in private.
And while it is for no one other than the Caribbean to determine how its institutions and decision making bodies should develop, it is clear that Europe, the US, and others have less and less time anywhere in the world to relate to bodies without executive authority.
When Caricom’s leaders leave their July summit in Jamaica a communiqué will be issued.
It will most probably be framed in its usual opaque style after having been much argued over.
It would be encouraging to think that aside from its references to important discussions that will have taken place on Haiti or the economic problems facing the region that it will set out a position on at least one issue that captures the popular imagination.
David Jessop can be contacted at email@example.com