Complex international outlook reinforces the need for regional integration
On New Year’s Day, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new neo-conservative president took office. Populist, avowedly anti-Communist, strongly pro-business, and not enamored with Mercosur, his approach to foreign policy shows every sign of polarizing an already divided hemisphere.
He has expressed strongly held views on Venezuela and Cuba, wants to weaken the climate change accord, has said that he will seek a reduction in Chinese influence through investment, and makes clear that he sees Brazil as Washington’s principal strategic partner in the Americas.
His recent talks with the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, pave the way for an early invitation to a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House.
In an indication of where this may lead, a U.S. State Department media briefing just before Pompeo and Bolsonaro met on January 2 in Brasilia said that they would discuss “efforts to defend and promote democracy and human rights in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba”.
At that time the senior State Department official who spoke on the basis of anonymity said that “the United States intends to work with Brazil to support the people in these countries who are struggling to live in freedom against these repressive regimes” and noted that the exchanges would focus on “China and China’s predatory trade and lending practices”.
The implication is that new north-south ideological alliances are about to be encouraged by Washington, requiring the Caribbean and all other states in the Americas to indicate where they stand.
Although yet to be spelt out, it is likely that the Trump administration will seek to create coalitions of the willing under an “America first” umbrella.
This may seek to isolate Venezuela and discourage investment in Cuba; level the playing field for trade of U.S. goods and services; establish a bigger role for sanctions; curtail support for countries that repeatedly vote against or take actions counter to U.S. interests; and see policies developed that try to offset China’s now substantial engagement in the Americas.
These are developments that beg the question as to how a far from unified Caribbean should respond, not least because an equally rapid change is coming in the political environment in Europe.
In March 2019, the U.K. government will, if its Parliament agrees, begin a two-year process of detaching Britain from the European Union (E.U.). If it does so, the U.K. and CARIFORUM will agree to trade access equivalent to that granted under the E.U.-CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement. However, the region will lose its supportive voice in E.U. decision making just as the political center gravity in the E.U. 27 is changing.
In most European states, far right and populist groups have been making substantial headway.
Marginalized voters, angry with establishment politics, along with elites who are concerned about migration, have elected increasing numbers of populists and nationalists. This has resulted in the rise of parties and governments prepared to challenge E.U. values, encourage xenophobia and allow racism to re-enter the main stream of European politics.
This is happening as the influence of the leaders of France and Germany, Europe’s principal liberal integrationists, is waning and Eurosceptic prime ministers in Italy, Austria and the post-communist states have begun to challenge E.U. orthodoxy on issues that range from judicial independence and migration to Eurozone budgetary constraints.
The implications of this will become clear in late May when voters in the E.U. 27 elect 705 members to the European Parliament. Most polls suggest that a large, loosely aligned co-operative of radical right-wing parties could emerge to challenge the current liberal status quo that has existed for more than 20 years between the center left and center right when it comes to Europe’s direction and values.
Whether nationalists and populists have enough in common to sustain any long-term political alliance for long is unclear, but their expected numbers in the Parliament will likely advance E.U. reform and certainly influence future thinking about the budget, international agreements and development cooperation.
More immediately, the new Parliament will play a central role in the appointment of a new College of Commissioners, the senior political figures who direct the European Commission, the bureaucracy, which delivers E.U. policy and regulations. They will also influence the appointment of the presidency of the council, the choice of the next E.U. high representative (foreign minister), and other positions due to change this year.
Whether the Caribbean can maintain a semblance of foreign policy coherence in the face of change in the hemisphere and in Europe is far from certain. The region is divided over Venezuela and sanctions, which without exception desires the full normalization of relations with Cuba and is unlikely to achieve a consensus on the significance of China’s future role for as long as some nations continue recognize Taiwan.
The implication is that external pressures may cause further inter-regional fragmentation and that nations will be faced with the unwelcome dilemma of choosing between friends. It suggests also that over time the region may have to consider new forms of non-alignment, perhaps within the ACP or some other grouping, or alternatively may simply gamble that by doing very little it can wait it out until January 2021 in the hope there will be a new incumbent in the White House.
In the absence of a unified foreign policy response this complex outlook reinforces the urgency of undertaking and implementing rapidly the steps heads of government agreed to in December: that is, to deliver many of the missing components of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy in order to create greater regional economic coherence and unity.
2019 has the makings of a year in which international relations will require skill and leadership if the Caribbean is to retain its integrity. If progress is not made in consolidating regional integration, individual nations could well find themselves suborned by the rapidly changing policies and priorities of others.
• David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org. Published with the permission of Caribbean News Now.