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A Reflection on the Lessons of BREXIT for OECS Integration

By Dr. Didacus Jules, Director General, OECS

We have all been saturated with news and views on the British vote to exit the European Union in the past week and there is much more to come by way of analysis and revelation as things unfold. Not unexpectedly, the Brexit has created the opportunity for those who are opposed to regional integration efforts all around the world to find comfort. Not unexpectedly in the Caribbean there are also those who seek to mimic the British and are also calling for exit of sorts from regional integration. These calls are nothing new – almost fifty years ago Sir Arthur Lewis, the intellectual author of OECS integration, was very clear about the main impediments to the realization of regional integration:

“What has stood in the way of Federation is not the sea… The real stumbling block has been the opposition of small local potentates. The larger and more far seeing capitalists realize the immense advantages that would flow from Federation, and advocate it. But it is the small potentate – planter or merchant [one might add: politician] – fearful that his voice, a big noise in a small community will be unheard in a large federation and has so far succeeded in preventing it.”

Whatever position one may hold on the Brexit question, it is now becoming painfully clear that this divorce will be a long, protracted, painful process in which much will be lost.

Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group summed it up adequately: “You are talking about the diminishment of the most important alliance of the post war order, the transatlantic relationship which was already before Brexit at its weakest since World War II. You’re talking about not only the removal of the UK from the EU but you’re also talking I think reasonably likely about the eventual disintegration in further part of the UK itself. And you’re talking about a severe diminishment of what the European Union actually means, its footprint globally, its common values, and its ability to continue to integrate.”

There is much work to be done to determine the implications and impact of Brexit on the Caribbean’s relations with Europe and with Britain but the situation provides us with a special opportunity to reflect on the lessons of Brexit for regional integration in the Caribbean and in the OECS in particular.

Lesson 1 – Connecting the people to the process 

From all of the analyses of the post referendum public sentiments, it is clear that Brexit was a rejection of an integration process that the average person in the street did not apparently understand. Google’s announcement that the most searched queries in the aftermath of the referendum were “What does it mean to leave the EU?” and “What is the EU?” is a very disturbing indication of the failure of public education on the matter. A referendum assumes that the electorate is provided with extensive information with the pros and cons thoroughly argued so as to arrive at an intelligent decision.

As electoral campaigns tend to go, the battle is often to win the hearts more than the heads of voters and the results of referendums do not always suggest that there has been that deep introspection.

The moral of that Brexit story for the OECS is that connecting the people to the process must be a continuous commitment not simply to giving and sharing information but also an obligation to listen to people. Integration processes must connect not only with people’s dreams and aspirations but also listen to and address their fears.

The OECS Communications Strategy which is currently being rolled out in phases seeks to put this capacity to share and to listen in place. It involves among other initiatives, the launch of a new interactive website that links social media with a communications platform that enables outreach to the widest universe of stakeholders from the highest to the humblest across the full spectrum of economic and social interests.

Lesson 2 – Engaging and Empowering the Youth

One of the most glaring contradictions exposed by the Brexit referendum is the near perfect correlation of age with voting position and also with educational level. The Wall Street Journal reported that 68% of those voting to leave were persons who did not graduate from high school; while 70% of those voting to remain in Europe were college graduates. As the BBC graph shows, the relationship between voting in favour of Brexit and age is strong – young persons voted to remain; older persons voted to leave. The unfortunate reality of this situation is that those who voted to remain will have to live with the consequences of Brexit much, much longer than those who instigated it.

The lesson of that reality is the importance of empowering and engaging youth. Regional integration projects are essentially about creating a very different future – by removing the barriers within the geographic space, they alter the mental geography and consequently the range of opportunities available. It also points to the difference in perception that education makes – higher education predisposed most British youth to seeing themselves as European. It can be argued that narrow insular identities are inherently restrictive if they embody a closed mentality. The challenge of that experience to us in the region is whether we are educating our youth to see themselves as global citizens with a Caribbean identity that is rooted in their national consciousness. Accomplishing this is a complex task that requires a fundamental reengineering of our education systems and how this can be done (easily) will require a separate discussion. Suffice it to note that the nexus of age and education points to an emerging global divide – older and less educated citizens have experienced the disadvantage of globalization while the younger more educated citizens recognize the opportunities that it presents. For a regional integration effort to be meaningful to the people, it needs to connect that divide.