Caricom set to pass

MPs were expected this morning to have agreed to Bermuda becoming an associate member of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) following a lengthy debate in the House of Assembly.

At 1.30 a.m., when The Royal Gazette went to press, MPs on both sides of Parliament were still arguing over the pros and cons of the issue, but the Progressive Labour Party was expected to win the vote to push ahead with their membership plans.

MPs were expected this morning to have agreed to Bermuda becoming an associate member of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) following a lengthy debate in the House of Assembly.

At 1.30 a.m., when The Royal Gazette went to press, MPs on both sides of Parliament were still arguing over the pros and cons of the issue, but the Progressive Labour Party was expected to win the vote to push ahead with their membership plans.

Premier Jennifer Smith said Bermuda already has observer status and it was a natural progression to move onto associate membership.

She accused the Opposition of "scare mongering," but the United Bermuda Party insisted no convincing evidence had been presented about the benefits to the Island, and Bermuda's reputation could be tarnished in the United States and Britain through closer association with Caricom.

The Premier said Bermuda would not be taking part in a single market with the other Caricom countries and there would be no free movement of labour between the Island and its neighbours to the south.

Nor would Bermuda take part in foreign policy decisions, because it is still a dependant territory.

But the Island had much to benefit from closer cultural and sporting and would benefit from research into health and education.

She said Caricom's mission was to provide dynamic leadership and service, form partnerships between neighbouring countries, and improve the quality of life for all.

And she said critics were merely using "scare tactics" as a smokescreen over the real issues.

"There has been a lot of noise about the potential cost and a great deal of speculation about the membership fee that Bermuda would have to pay," said Ms Smith

"Some even tried to frighten the public into believing that the Caricom countries were eyeing Bermuda greedily as a cash cow.

"To listen to all this noise, you would have thought that we were being asked to hand over the keys to the Bermuda Monetary Authority vaults.

"Fortunately, such scare tactics have not worked. Bermudians are too smart for that and have seen through this scare mongering for what it really is."

Ms Smith said Bermuda joining Caricom was just a natural progression.

She said as countries learned from Bermuda, Bermuda, too, would learn from others.

"The functional co-operation from which Bermuda will benefit is nothing more than a common sense approach to address shared issues of concern," she added.

"Under the terms of Bermuda's associate membership, we will not take part in any economic or foreign policy elements of Caricom.

"For the record, let me state clearly again what associate membership does not mean. Bermuda will not be engaged in Caricom's single market and economy. There will be no free movement of labour across our borders. Work permit policies have been put in place to protect Bermudians."

And the Premier said Bermuda would not be joining the proposed Caribbean Court of Justice, and would not be engaged in Caricom's foreign policy initiatives.

She said as a British Overseas Territory, Bermuda's foreign affairs were the responsibility of the UK and the Island had a Letter of Entrustment from the British Government stipulating the terms of Bermuda's acceptance.

She added: "Establishing a link with Caricom is a natural expression of historical, cultural and ancestral ties that bind Bermuda to the Caribbean region.

"The bond goes deeper than the economic and tangible; it includes a shared history, blood relations and cultural affinities.

"The days are long past when countries could afford the luxury of being able to act independently, as though islands unto themselves.

"In today's interconnected world, each jurisdiction's actions have ramifications well beyond its own shores. It makes no sense for Bermuda to remain isolated, independently reinventing the wheel."

If Bermuda does join Caricom as an associate member, it will be asked to contribute one percent of the Secretariat's annual budget, amounting to about $99,000 a year.

The Premier said there may be additional costs for participation in particular projects, but they would be discretionary.

And she said there would also be costs associated with attending meetings in the Caribbean, but there was also the possibility that some meetings could be held here, bringing revenue to the local economy.

She added: "The fact of the matter is that there is a price to pay for participation. This is true for everything in life. The alternative is to sit out on the sidelines and relegate Bermuda to the sidelines of regional affairs."

But UBP leader Dr. Grant Gibbons said while his party had no problem with developing closer links with the Caribbean, it could not see the point in becoming an associate member of Caricom.

He said he did not believe Government had put together a case strong enough to prove that Bermuda would benefit, and said he did not feel that the implications had been thrashed out enough in Government or in the community.

He said: "We don't think the reasons have been presented with any degree of clarity and we don't think the matter has been thought through.

"We can't support the associate membership of Caricom because we don't think, at this point, that the Bermuda public has been given the pros and cons.

"We on this side of the House have no problem with closer links with the Caribbean. But we do think the ties we currently have with the Caribbean should be viewed with pride."

But he added: "The issue, therefore, is where associate membership in Caricom is going to get us."

Dr. Gibbons said the Caribbean region was going through difficult economic times and it was important for everyone to understand what the implications of that was before joining Caricom.

Caribbean countries were setting up a number of initiatives to deal with the economic situation, and said Jamaica was even asking that Jamaican Nationals living abroad send a percentage of their salaries home.

He added: "I say all that, not to be condescending, but it's important that we understand. The question we have to ask ourselves is does it make any sense to join a club whose major objectives are a single market economy and foreign policy co-ordination, which don't have any real interest or bearing on Bermuda at all?

"When you join a club, you are held accountable for the actions of that club. If we have no say in foreign policy and direction to hold accountable, we'll find the voices speaking for Bermuda will be someone else's voices.

"The most important foreign policy is economic diplomacy, and we can't afford to send ambiguous messages to those trading partners where we spend a lot of our business, particularly the US, the UK, and Europe. We cannot afford to subordinate our economic interests to Caricom's."Bermuda had a special relationship with the US, yet Washington "has served notice on the Caribbean for drug smuggling and for money laundering, and if you look at the press in the Caribbean in many respects it is not terribly complimentary. If we join that club or become associates, then very quickly we get associated with that club."

And he said the Caribbean did not have the same reputation as Bermuda in financial services and Bermuda would be much better pursuing its own policies.

"These associations have major ramifications for our major trading partners that are not going to be terribly effective for us."

He said at the State Department in Washington, Bermuda was dealt with by the European desk, not the Caribbean desk, and "there is an implicit danger that we will be viewed differently as a member of a "Caribbean club".

He questioned what Bermuda could achieve from joining a club whose primary functions were economic and foreign policy, when the island would have no say in either field.

Caricom held more than 200 meetings this year, and while he was not suggesting Bermuda would attend all, there would certainly be more meetings, when Ministers and civil servants could better spend their time on Island tackling problems such as housing.

"There is an awful distraction when you go to meetings and look like you are doing things when you really should be in Bermuda focussing on issues here," said Dr. Gibbons.

The $100,000 on membership could be better spent on helping rebuild St. George's Police station.

"There is an awful lot of energy, effort and money that could be better spent addressing our own problems in Bermuda."Government backbencher Delaey Robinson said he couldn't understand why Dr. Gibbons had concentrated on economic and foreign policy when he knew Bermuda would be taking part in these areas.

There would strong acknowledged business links with the Caribbean and he could not understand why anyone would fail to see the benefits of strengthening cultural ties as well.

The suggestion that Bermuda might be moved off the State Department's European desk was nothing more than a scare tactic, said Mr. Robinson.

Bermuda was a maturing country that would not always be a colony so it had to start developing ties with other countries and looking after itself.

The Island should not ignore its relationship with the US, but neither should it allow it to stand in the way of developing relationships with other countries.

UBP backbencher Jamahl Simmons said not enough detail had been provided about what benefits Caricom membership would bring.

PLP MP Dale Butler said rather than be adventurous, the UBP was constantly demanding to know what the benefits would be. If they lived in Biblical times, the Bible would never have been written because the UBP would never be convinced in advance it was a good thing, said Mr. Butler.

The UBP, and many Bermudians in general, always concentrated on every possible thing that could go wrong every time any change was suggested, "and I'm getting tired of it because it is holding up opportunities", he said.

It was said Britain defended Bermuda and America fed us, but London had abandoned the Island when it tried to negotiate with Washington over the Baselands clean-up, he said.

"We are stuck out here on our own and the mother country has opened the door to say there's not much we can do. Our priority is Europe, we'll send you a governor, but you are own your own."Bermuda needed to expand intellectually and internationally by developing new alliances with regions such as the Caribbean.

Shadow transport Minister Erwin Adderley questioned why Bermuda should spend $100,000 when it got no vote and no say for its money. And he noted the Island got free help, advice and expertise on issues such as emergency planning without building closer Caricom links.

Health Minister Nelson Bascome, who chaired the Government information committee on

Caricom said "Cariphobia" - constantly being negative about the Caribbean - was "rife" in Bermuda.

Coverage continues in Monday's Royal Gazette

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