by Saieed I. Khalil
If there’s one thing the mass protests in Ukraine can teach regionalists in the Caribbean, it is that the impetus for regional integration does not lie solely with a clique of experts and policymakers, but with an enthused and hopeful citizenry as well. In November 2013, rallies erupted in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and in other cities across the former Soviet Republic after that country’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended preparations for an integration and trade accord with the European Union in favor of pursuing closer ties with Russia.
The decision infuriated Ukrainian citizens, nearly a million of whom poured into Kiev’s Independence Square (popularly referred to as the “Maidan) to denounce the measure. The grassroots outburst in favor of European integration caught Yanukovych’s administration by surprise. It has also heartened observers within the European Union, who see the street demonstrations as a shot in the arms of Europe’s ordinary citizens and policymakers, many of whose zeal for the European project has sapped. As Harvard fellow Slawomir Sierakowski writes, “If the European Union ever seeks to shoot an ad, it will find no better visual than the masses of Ukrainians protesting in the winter streets under the EU flag.”
Therein lies the Maidan’s first lesson for deeper CARICOM integration: broad-based civic agitation is the cure for official lethargy. In 2011, during a Heads of Government retreat in Guyana, CARICOM Heads of Government took the fateful decision to put a “pause” on the implementation of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) framework, a much vaunted pillar of the Caribbean integration process. The CSME was enacted in 2006 and anticipated to be fully operationally by 2008, a deadline, which however was extended to 2015. With this pause, though, there is now no clear deadline for CSME’s operationalization. Apart from a few moans from elder statesmen, academics and newspapers, the response from the general Caribbean public was overwhelmingly mute. As a result of the lack of civic solidarity behind the regional project, the political paralysis on Caribbean integration remains and if possible, worsens.
But who among us will participate in the uprising to galvanize policymakers to act? In Ukraine, some estimates put the portion of youths under 30 participating in the protests at 90%! Many of them are students and wield degrees. This leads us to the second lesson of the Maidan protests: a mass of young, educated people who are sufficiently mobilized can lead the strike for regional integration. Why them, and not older folks? As Ukraine demonstrates, in an epoch of technology fueled interconnectedness and social networking, the old allegiances and prejudices harbored by the older generations are taking a backseat as energized and youthful citizens forge new bonds that transcend geographic and cultural barriers. In the CARICOM region where national policymakers are jealous of their sovereignty, the formation of region wide bonds will finally lend impetus to regional policy coordination.
However, what could motivate young people to mobilize in the name of regional integration? Surely, it cannot be for regional integration’s sake. This brings us to the third lesson: regional integration must offer citizens something worth fighting for. For Ukrainians, integration with Europe portends an embrace of liberal European values of democracy and a break from Soviet-styled autocratic governance and economic subjugation by Russia.
Meanwhile what can CARICOM integration offer youths that would inspire them to mobilize in its name? For starters, economic development. In this debt burdened region which has been constantly grappling with economic contraction, imbalance of trade and worsening fiscal deficits, unemployment, especially among youth, is severe. Just as the Ukrainians saw the trade accords between Europe and Ukraine as a catalyst for wider socioeconomic transformation, there exists for the CARICOM bloc a panacea for the region’s economic malaise viz. the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) agreement.
The Single Market and Economy, as conceptualized, would permit the free trade of goods and services within the region. More importantly, however, the Single Market and Economy would permit the free movement of labor, capital and entrepreneurship among the region. It is generally accepted that the nations that constitute CARICOM are too small to achieve many of their development goals on their own.
A 2010 CARICOM report on youth development says that enlightened youths between the ages of 15 and 29 believe that with the CSME they can “accomplish more, make more money and build regional relationships; learn social and cultural history of other countries and better appreciate their own; rise above mistakes made early in life (a second chance); travel, work, establish business and access education opportunities not available at home and respond to labour and skill shortages in other countries; [as well as] access better quality goods and services and enjoy an affordable standard of living.” Further the report notes that “they also see the CSME as enhancing the ability of countries to: open up borders, unify the country and populate under-developed areas; reduce the impact of the brain drain; compete with trading blocks and have a bigger market space; market the Caribbean and boost tourism levels; reduce inter-country discrimination and stigmatisation; and increase productivity and prosperity.”
If more youngsters are edified as to the benefits of this agreement, there is greater potential for political mobilization by this segment to end the aforementioned paralysis on the Agreement’s implementation. Political parties in the region would find great electoral incentive in endorsing and agitating for the implementation of the CSME by their governments. The greatest economic and political transformations are always driven by mass grassroots activism. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., writing on the American Civil Rights Movement, pointed out: “It was the people who moved their leaders, not the leaders who moved the people. Of course there were generals, as there must be in every army. But the command post was in the bursting hearts of millions…When such a people begin to move, they create their own theories, shape their own destinies, and choose the leaders who share their own philosophy. A leader who understands this kind of mandate knows that he must be sensitive to the anger, the impatience, the frustration, the resolution that have been loosed in his people.”
Saieed I. Khalil is a 19 year old final year economics major at the University of Guyana.
This post was submitted as part of our #dearCaribbean Blog Carnival which runs throughout the month of January. Check out the other entries and submit yours!