Only time will tell the wisdom or foolishness of our prime minister’s reaction to the announced sale by Scotia Bank of its assets here and in much of the Caribbean to Trinidad & Tobago’s Republic Bank. Only history will write the final chapter on the success or failure of Mr. Gaston Browne’s bid to persuade or pressure Scotia – a Canadian banking giant with vast and powerful global reach – to reconsider and rescind its decision to sell its local assets to Republic, in favor of an as yet unveiled “consortium of local banks”.
We cannot help noticing that – apart from some fleeting cries of alarm at the governmental level in Guyana about the impact this change of ownership could have on the job security of Guyanese presently employed with Scotia, the possibly negative effect of reduced competition and diversity within Guyana’s banking and financial sector, and other economic what-ifs – the overall reaction or resistance to this proposed/pending transaction has been rather tepid throughout the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) with its much-vaunted but still travailing Single Market & Economy (CSME); and the more functionally effective Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) known for the relatively efficient machineries of its Currency Union/Central Bank (ECCU/ECCB) and what by all accounts is a more smoothly evolving Economic Union.
It cannot be that our Prime Minister has failed to grasp what his counterparts like Dr. Keith Mitchell of Grenada, Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica, and Allen Chastanet of Saint Lucia – to name just a few – seem resigned to without undue anguish or agitation: that within the context of a multi-state single economy, government’s role is to facilitate and not inhibit or prohibit lawful free trade on the basis of insular domestic interests.
Prime Minister Browne needs to consider if his threats or efforts to block the sale by one bank to another (through lawful agreement between a buyer and a seller within the same economic space and jurisdiction according to treaty) could not become a matter actionable underthe adjudicative instruments of regional integration. Think Council on Trade & Economic Development (COTED) . . . think Council for Finance & Planning (COFAP) . . . Think Caribbean Court of Justice or CCJ! Prime Minister’s Browne’s seeming determination to impose orinterpose on a lawful transaction between two legitimate parties within the treaty space, may run counter to agreed principles of trade liberalization and facilitation that are encouraged and protected at all levels of cross border commercial engagement, including the WTO, but no less so at the regional and sub-regional levels of CARICOM and the OECS.
If patriotism is in fact what motivates him, then we otherwise understand and hail his zeal and passion for the national interests of Antigua & Barbuda. We are after all his employers. What we do not want is for that zeal to be so crudely and impetuously executed that it leads to the ruin of interconnections for which domestic posturing can provide no substitute or compensation. It is not just our Prime Minister’s fellow finance ministers and heads of government who have thus far not joined his rampage against the Scotia Sale.
The ECCB, the supra-national regulator of all banking within the OECS, has (diplomatically) urged Mr. Browne to ‘cool out himself’ while, with simultaneous tact, advised people within the jurisdiction to ‘pay him no mind and just remain calm’. The Caribbean Association of Indigenous Banks (CAIB) recently issued a long, strong and detailed statement clearly aimed at debunking what they obviously consider to be Mr. Browne’s alarmist shrieks against the transaction and his repeated threats to block it.
Indeed, not even among the local banking elite, whether active or retired, have we heard any expression of support for the Prime Minister by individuals willing to be publicly identified. No member of this shadowy “consortium of local banks” has come out or come forward to swear by his stance. Unlike his previous spats with Sandals over allegedly unpaid taxes or Barbudan opponents accused of obstructing development, Mr. Browne’s own Ministers in his Cabinet have for the most part remained notably muted about their take on this latest saga.
No one within the economics, money, banking and finance pool of expertise within Antigua & Barbuda has so far publicly contradicted the cogent arguments advanced by retired veteran banker Everett Christian that the Prime Minister is mistaken and misguided on this matter. But even though we might say that ‘a thousand Frenchmen cannot be wrong’, we also concede that aloneness is no sure evidence or proof of wrongness. Prime Minister Browne may well be far ahead of everyone else in his grasp of what is at stake, and his vision could be what we laud and celebrate in the future.
What we are uncomfortable with is the hamfisted, threatening approach he seems to adopt as a matter of routine in such situations. It’s not that we would ever conceivably oppose our prime minister fighting for us. He just does not need to do it with such gangster-like aggression that it comes across as habitual loose cannon shooting-from-the-hip. We’re not even asking Mr. Browne to play with soft hands or to lower his voice – we’re just saying that some of the toughest hands are played and some of the most stentorian voices are heard in the discussion chamber, in the negotiating room.
You don’t need to be shouting at your own investors – and hence economic partners – from across the street, from every perch and platform you mount . . . like your own private radio station . . . and then expect them to come to closed-door negotiations with open minds. You would have already communicated to them in very threatening and bullying language that you are demanding X (that they scrap the sale to Republic in favor of your ‘local consortium’) and if they do not comply you will do Y to them – refuse to grant the required vesting order, or take them over by the force of a compulsory acquisition.
Has Prime Minister Browne ever stopped to ponder how such language feels to ears of his colleague Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, and the myriad of very powerful and very wealthy interests in this oil-rich fellow CARICOM state? Does he ever stop to ponder what those powerful vested interests could end up lobbying and pressuring Portof-Spain to do in response to one of its companies being refused the right to purchase and the freedom to own assets lawfully transacted in another treaty contracting state?
This would be happening at a time when Antigua and Barbuda could be needing Trinidad and Tobago much more than it has in a long time, given the knife-edge of ruin on which our ALBA and Petro-Caribe benefactor, Venezuela, is teetering. Our prime minister still seems at pains to grasp the realities of size, strength and proportion that largely determine the conduct and outcome of issues and disputes within international relations. He makes the point that Scotia would not dare take any defiance or testiness to his “friend” Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, so they better don’t try giving him any such ‘attitude’.
Does Gaston Browne not understand that what Justin Trudeau would climb down from in a bruising tariff tussle with the Donald Trump-led United States, he might not think twice to pitilessly swat and slap-down a cheeky tropical micro-state if sufficiently prodded and wheedled by powerful Canadian commercial interests such as the Scotia Bank Group? Does he really believe that a Justin Trudeau, who might be anxious to regain face and show he is no pushover, after being practically flattened by the Trump trade juggernaut, will not be eagerto impress his commercial or corporate constituency that he is tough and adamant when it comes to standing up for them?
And besides, if Justin Trudeau is such a friend, how did Antigua and Barbuda end up losing visa free access to Canada right on the stroke of his watch? Why hasn’t the friendship yielded a reinstatement of this prized privilege? Do right by and for your people, Prime Minister Browne. Stand up for them, fight for them, accomplish and achieve for them – but understand that legitimacy and dignity go hand in hand. There is no reason to treat every disappointment or disagreement with an investor as a fight in which you must rip off your shirt and challenge them to a fist fight – whether on the streets, from your parliamentary perch, or via the airwaves.