THE EVENTUAL exit of the UK from the European Union cannot be thought of in terms of a British or European political and economic event. This process has consequences for countries and regions outside of Europe.
In the context of the Caribbean there remains a degree of uncertainty regarding the regional organisation CARICOM, which is a trading partner of both the UK and the EU.
Historically the UK has acted as an advocate on a number of interests that favour CARICOM.
However, with the UK’s eventual departure from the EU, CARICOM will have to consider what its future relationship with the EU will look like.
In previous articles I have outlined what the economic consequences could be for the Caribbean in the advent of a “no-deal” Brexit.
This time it is important to look in detail at the dynamics of the changing relationship between the Caribbean (represented by CARICOM) and the EU.
Caribbean trade relations with the EU go back to the 1975 Lomé Convention which designated African, Caribbean, and the Pacific group of states (ACP) as a group to engage with the EU (then the EEC).
The aim was to integrate newly independent countries that were former European colonies into the global economy and provide a basis for co-operation.
This was initially done with the implementation of preferential access to EU markets.
“A far-right trend in Latin America could marginalise Caribbean interests”
The Lomé Convention would eventually be succeeded by the Cotonou Agreement in 2000 with an emphasis on reciprocal trade, as opposed to preferential access to the EU market that the ACP had initially enjoyed.
With Brexit there is a now a concern among CARICOM leaders that without the UK’s influence, the EU’s own priorities will shift – and the Caribbean region faces the danger of being left behind other countries in the Global South.
In 2017 the African Union (AU) and the EU held a summit involving 55 African countries.
While the summit focused on enhancing cooperation between the EU and the AU, the pre-existing ACP Group arrangements were not brought up, despite the ACP Group comprising of 48 African countries that are currently part of the AU.
With the 2015 “refugee crisis” as well as the ongoing investment opportunities across the continent, Africa is at the top of the EU’s political and economic agenda, with European leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron and the former president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker emphasising that the state of Africa is crucial to the economic future of Europe.
In preparation for the expiration of the Cotonou Agreement in 2020, the AU has started putting together an all-Africa position for future engagement with the EU.
This comes despite an EU proposal in 2016 for the renewal in the ACP-EU partnership.
Currently discussions among ACP members including CARICOM member states have avoided the issue of how to address regional cooperation dynamics after 2020.
The hope is that a hybrid option comprised of an “umbrella” all-ACP agreement and the AU’s own ambitions for its engagement with the EU can be reached.
However, according to Niels Keijzer and Alfonso Medinilla of the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), ignoring these issues is risky and could result in an eventual fracturing of ACP engagement and co-operation with the EU if the AU really seeks to operate as its own separate regional bloc with the EU.
With EU priorities shifting away from the Caribbean and other ACP states, there is the possibility that CARICOM’s engagement with the EU could take less of a priority than that of relations with Latin America.
This could be disastrous for the region’s long-term trade interests with the EU as the current priorities and interests of many Latin American countries could be at odds with the interests of CARICOM on matters such as climate change, migration, poverty reduction, corruption and human rights.
Since the mid-2010s, a number of right-wing, nationalist governments have come to power in prominent Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile and Argentina.
This “blue tide” or “conservative wave” is often characterised by ultra-nationalism with populist sentiments similar to the rise of the far-right across Europe and the United States.
They are represented in leaders such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who has sparked outrage with everything from homophobia to accusing the actor Leonardo DiCaprio of financing the devastating fires in the Amazon rainforest.
The trend could potentially marginalise the interests of the Caribbean with the EU and subvert them even further in favour of right-wing, neoliberal economic interests which have been historically harmful to the region.
Even if the EU mitigated these concerns and facilitated a prominent voice for the Caribbean in its engagement in matters of trade, CARICOM nations will still have to deal with internal and persistent economic issues that have historically hindered competitiveness on a global scale.
In agriculture, for example, there is an ongoing issue with high production costs and low production yield.
As such, CARICOM states will struggle to make their voices heard regardless of the politics of their Latin American counterparts. With the EU, the postBrexit importance of the region remains limited without the UK to advocate based partly on its own strategic and old colonial interests.
Moreover, the EU has shifted its approach to the region since 1975, moving from a position of preferential market access to reciprocal trade which has a mixed record among CARICOM states in terms of economic development.
Regardless of what shape or form EU-CARICOM relations take after 2020 it is imperative that CARICOM states look at ways that they can collectively pursue their interests in order to avoid being politically and economically marginalised by larger regions and powers.
This article appears in the January edition of The Voice newspaper – out now. Download your copy of the issue here.