A common market in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries would lead to a substantial rise in the regional exports. This is one of the findings of a new World Bank Report entitled, 'Trade matters: New opportunities for the Caribbean'.

That statement might come as a surprise to many since CARICOM is an acronym for 'Caribbean Community and Common Market'. This would lead to the assumption that the 15-nations of CARICOM are already part of a common market. But they are not. The 'common market' has been more aspirational than actual. Two of the CARICOM countries – The Bahamas and Haiti – are indeed only members of the 'community', participating actively solely in the functional co-operation aspects of CARICOM but not in trade.

In reality, after 43 years of existence, CARICOM is not yet a common market defined as "a stage in the multinational integration process, which aims to remove all the barriers to intra-Community trade with a view to the merger of national markets into a single market giving rise to conditions as close as possible to a genuine internal market".

CARICOM has aspired to a 'single market and economy' since 1989. But, 17 years later, in 2006, only 12 member states created a framework for it. Since then, in 2011, the Heads of Government of CARICOM decided to "pause" the work toward its establishment. Therefore, the likelihood of a common market of CARICOM countries is remote and so too are the prospects of "a substantial rise in exports in the region" which the World Bank report anticipates would be a direct benefit of its creation.

I lament the thinking that has influenced pausing the establishment of a single market and halting work toward a common market. I subscribe to the view of the Distinguished Caribbean Economist, Terrence Farrell, who in summing up what countries of the region need to do to put themselves back on a growth trajectory, said: they need "to press the 'Play' button on the CSME and accession to the CCJ by all West Indian territories. There are tough issues to be worked through such as the movement of labour and policy co-ordination. But it may be a helpful strategy to work these issues through sequentially and to link the sequencing with specific policy imperatives such as agriculture and regional food security".

Another leading Caribbean Economist, who also knows well the challenges confronting a small Caribbean state, is former Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur. In a compelling address to Chartered Accountants earlier this year, he said the following: "The growth and development of Barbados have also been guided by the very clear understanding that, as a very small nation, it could only slip the adverse bounds of size by building strong integrated relationships with its neighbours. It was for this reason that the leadership of Barbados was in the vanguard of the creation of CARIFTA, next Caricom and subsequently the CSME. It is therefore not by accident that the markets of our neighbours in the region have consistently been more important to Barbados as an outlet for our goods, than the markets of the rest of the world combined".

By not proceeding with the perfection of the single market, CARICOM countries are depriving themselves of a much needed opportunity and, by their delay, are exposing themselves to a long struggle to economic and fiscal improvement.

It may be that the political realities which militate against the perfection of a single market will be part of the CARICOM reality for some time to come. In this connection, the 7 smaller territories of CARICOM that comprise the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) deserve praise for the continuous deepening of their integration process. They have announced that a single biometric ID card containing all required information will be issued to their citizens so that, in the near future, "people from the OECS will not even have to fill out immigration cards to move". Already there is no need to obtain a skills certificate for nationals to move and live in any OECS member state.

Even if CARICOM governments are not ready to advance the single market, serious and meaningful consideration should be given to their trading relations with the rest of the world.

The importance of this was underscored by Owen Arthur as he reviewed the growth of mega trading blocs that are seeking to make themselves even more powerful. He observed: "The Caribbean has no relationship or forms of engagement with these new forces of global development. Indeed, the lack of any relationship with the new mega trading blocs could have devastating consequences. Their exports would enter each other's markets duty free while ours would have to enter duty paid. The consequences for the Caribbean for failure to engage can therefore be catastrophic".

In this regard, contrary to the view that individual CARICOM countries somehow miraculously stand a chance of achieving growth and development on their own, the institution of CARICOM and its joint machinery better offers them the chance to engage in the world trading system to their collective benefit. But governments have to be prepared to back the process, taking into account the interest of all, in a joint bargaining strategy.

The World Bank report argues that "The gains for the Caribbean of entry to the North American Free Trade Agreement would be six times the size of the gains for implementing a Caribbean common market. The negotiations toward a Canada-Caricom free trade agreement launched in 2007 should also be pursued." What has caused Caribbean concern about these negotiations in the past is a reasonable desire for compensatory mechanisms for loss of income and displacement of small producers arising from opening their markets to the US and Canada. This remains a valid concern and should form part of the region's bargaining strategy, but it should not be a reason not to pursue the negotiations.

For, as Owen Arthur observed, the region "may come to find that our economies, as regards to our international economic relationships, remain trapped in the 20th century while the rest of the world marches on without us into the 21st."

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(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College, University of Toronto)