ST JOHN’S, Antigua (CMC) — Caricom’s outgoing Secretary-General, Irwin LaRocque says “much more” could have been achieved within the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME) and the time had come to allow member states who could proceed to the ideals of the initiative to do so.
Speaking on Monday at the opening ceremony of the 42nd annual meeting of Caricom leaders, LaRocque nonetheless insisted that the regional integration movement had been a catalyst for significant improvement in the lives of the people of the region.
LaRocque, who is demitting office later this month after serving two five-year terms as the region’s top public servant, said that the CSME, had been the driving force behind several policies, programmes and systems for a further deepening of the integration process.
“A lot of time and effort have been spent putting in place policies, programmes and systems for the private sector, labour and the overall population to benefit from the CSME,” LaRocque told the opening ceremony of the 42nd annual meeting of Caricom leaders.
The CSME, which came into being in 2006, allows for the free movement of goods, skills, labour and services across the region, and LaRocque said that the categories of free movement of skills have been expanded and that a protocol outlining the rights of spouses and dependents who accompany the skilled worker to another member state has been agreed.
He said new business opportunities have been created. A public procurement protocol opening a market estimated at five billion US dollars for businesses within the member states has been signed, and the online dashboard advertising tenders has been established.
The outgoing secretary general said that the aviation sector has also been liberalised with the coming into force of the Multilateral Air Services Agreement.
“It is my expectation that as more airlines make use of this agreement, it will allow for greater choice of movement throughout our community and contribute, with competition, to lowering airfares,” LaRocque said, adding “these are but some examples of what has been put in place within the last decade for the people of our community to be able to realise the benefits of the CSME as a lived experience”.
He said other steps have been made to buttress the welfare of the people of the community and that there has been progress in greater cooperation among member states to combat crime in the region, as well as building a legal architecture.
“Three major legal instruments were agreed to in this regard. I refer to the Caricom Arrest Warrant Treaty, the Treaty with Respect to Return and Sharing of Recovered Assets from Criminal Activity, and the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty,” LaRocque said, noting that these treaties provide the regional law enforcement and justice systems with the tools to engage those whose criminal activities respect no borders.
But he acknowledged that he would be the “first to recognise that more could have been accomplished, particularly with the CSME”.
“A lot of preparatory technical work has been done, and redone, by the Secretariat. But because of our decision-making process, we can only move as fast as the slowest member state.”
LaRocque said that in order to drive the integration process forward, “the time has come to consider favourably the concept of enhanced cooperation to allow those who are ready to go forward to do so”.
He recalled that the issue was discussed as early as when the original Treaty of Chaguaramas was being revised and that it has been referred to at various times as circles of integration or the coalition of the willing.
“I believe this must be pursued. But we must maintain the integrity and fundamental principles, goals and objectives of the revised treaty. We must also put greater focus on prioritising, especially bearing in mind resource constraints,” the Dominican-born Caricom secretary general added.
He told the opening of the two-day virtual meeting that the regional leaders were gathering at a time when the Caribbean is still dealing with the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as well as climate change, particularly with the hurricane season that started in June, ending six months later.
He said Guyana and Suriname had to deal with flooding in recent times and St Vincent and the Grenadines has had to contend with the passage of Hurricane Elsa, which also affected several other Caricom countries, while still dealing with the eruption of the La Soufrière volcano.
“The vulnerability of our member states can never be in doubt. At times like this, the true spirit of our community is demonstrated as member states are always the first responders,” he said.
But LaRocque said that even as the region recovers from the impact of COVID, “we must design a recovery that will not only resuscitate our economies but also enhance the resilience of our community”.
“It is our duty to fortify our community against the factors that threaten its viability and the sustainable well-being of our people. That is the priority which not only has brought us here at this time, but which is the driving force of our integration movement,” LaRocque said, adding that “it is also the priority that has engaged me as secretary-general over the past decade, along with making the integration movement a lived experience for the citizens of Caricom”.
He said that to help achieve this, Caricom has embarked on much needed community reform, guided in large measure by the community’s first-ever strategic plan, which is built on the resilience LaRocque said that the involvement of the stakeholders at the national and regional levels has also been pursued with the engagement of the private sector, labour, civil society and the youth.
“Their voices are now heard around the table at our Ministerial Councils, and in the case of the private sector, labour and civil society, they have been welcomed again to the forum of the heads of Government.
“I have been energised by the vitality and ideas of our youth with whom I have interacted throughout my tenure. I have been struck by their immense pride in being part of the Caribbean Community and their desire for integration to work for them.
“It is to provide them with the tools to fulfil their ambitions that the Human Resource Development Strategy 2030 was devised. That strategy, and its accompanying action plan, provides for a globally competitive, innovative and seamlessly integrated education system to drive inclusive sustainable development in our region.”
But LaRocque, said that the Guyana-based Caricom Secretariat has had to do more with less. “During my terms of office, the financial resources available to the Secretariat declined by 25 per cent, due largely to a decline in donor resources, and we also experienced a resulting decline in our staff head count.
“But the demands and the output of the Secretariat have not declined. As a matter of fact, they have increased. This is due to the dedication of our staff and to the introduction of greater efficiencies in the manner in which we work. This is part of the reform proves of the Secretariat.”
He said that an assessment of the Secretariat’s processes and systems has been undertaken. This has resulted in proposals for a redesign of its structure and business operations, some of which have been implemented. The objective is to make the Secretariat more efficient, strategic, agile and effective.
In his address, LaRocque expressed his “heartfelt thanks” to the regional leaders “for bestowing on me the great honour of allowing me to serve you.
“Your unstinting support and the confidence you reposed in me was a constant source of strength during my tenure,” he said, adding “I must also pay tribute to the staff of the Caricom Secretariat.”
“These dedicated and committed public servants work tirelessly, through long hours, in their determination to ensure that integration is beneficial to the people of our community. I leave fully confident that the community and its Secretariat could not be in better hands than that of my successor, Dr Carla Barnett,” he added.