Last month, Britain published two significant post-Brexit policy documents setting out its future thinking on foreign policy, defense, security and development. Both referred in general terms to the UK’s importance of its fourteen Overseas Territories worldwide.
The relationship was summed up in the suggestion that shared interests’ bind the citizens of the United Kingdom, the Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies, “giving us an advantage in an increasingly competitive global environment and a unique and influential voice in the world” .
It is unclear whether this view is collective.
Speaking recently to some in the Caribbean Overseas Territories and others elsewhere who are taking an interest in their future, most suggest that while the links continue to be beneficial, the relationship is eroding. They warn that a new, more modern, and autonomous form of partnership could better serve those living in Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos.
The sense is that developments over the last few years have raised significant questions about how the UK is trying to manage the relationship.
They cite the uncertainty created by Brexit; the now unclear representative relationship between London and the EU on foreign territorial issues such as ‘harmful tax practices’ and development aid; continued friction over public registers of beneficial ownership for offshore companies; unsatisfactory financial arrangements for disaster relief; and interventions by London on social issues that undermine locally elected governments. They suggest that everyone contributes to a sense of dissatisfaction, especially among the young and the better educated.
There is also a view that the time has come to move beyond what some in a Caribbean context see as a kind of ‘soft colonialism’.
They believe that, in the absence of alternative voices in the UK, the 2019 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, ‘Global Britain and the British Overseas Territories: Resetting the Relationship’, unduly influences the Conservative Government’s thinking on the nature of the relationship with the Caribbean Overseas Territories.
The implication is that strong cross-party support for its recommendations has led Whitehall to seek greater control, and encourage convergence with UK policy. They also believe that British Ministers have concluded that the foreign territories offer a politically useful way to help define the phrase ‘Global Britain’ on issues including security, the environment, and global financial probity .
To be fair there are other voices and opinions in Britain’s overseas Caribbean territories.
The older generation tends to be inherently conservative, there are significant concerns in some territories about governance, corruption and policing, many expatriate residents want to maintain the status quo and have a vote, and in some, the opposition sees electoral advantage as short-term criticism of aspects of the relationship. There are also wider concerns in the independent Caribbean about the implications for the sovereignty of elected governments in sister nations.
All of this suggests that the future challenge will be to achieve some sort of consensus on a long-term approach that recognizes change is inevitable, and region-specific solutions to two fundamental issues will be needed if the relationship is to be achieved. redefined it.
The first revolves around the diverse nature of the UK’s Overseas Caribbean Territories and the need for options for promotion other than the current binary choice between dependency and independence. The second is about how a new partnership could be forged between the UK and its Caribbean Overseas Territories which sets out a process leading to greater autonomy and which accepts that the one size fits all ‘no longer applies.
This may not be easy as it is not surprising that a wide range of opinions also exist about future options.
At one end of the spectrum is a view that the region’s foreign territories should have directly elected representation in Westminster in one or both Houses of Parliament. The idea seems to suggest ultimate integration and a relationship closer to the relationship of départements and régions d’outre-mer in France which sees Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana elect representatives to the French National Assembly in directly.
It is a view largely dismissed by those on the other end of the spectrum. They believe this would reduce the specific identities and concerns of the 159,000 people living in the overseas Caribbean territories of the UK, making governments and regulation more likely to follow the London mindset. A more reasonable approach, they suggest, would be to respect the changing circumstances in each territory by proposing a universal roadmap that enables alternative forms of constitutional development; leading gradually, some say, to the ultimate option of country-specific forms of ‘Free Society’ with Britain.
They argue that this could be achieved through a process of constitutional reform and ultimately lead to the UK retaining coordinated, defined responsibility for defense, security and foreign relations, while foreign territory citizens in the region could, if need, benefit on a non-bilateral basis. of providing transnational services such as health care, education and social welfare.
Higher figures highlight a recent practical example of how a more developed relationship might work. They say that the UK’s willingness to provide vaccines and supplies to the Overseas Caribbean territories while leaving them to take all the necessary steps to tackle the pandemic locally is very positive and welcome. However, they caution that this is far from the case in other areas relating, for example, to aspects of Brexit where the level of consultation was minimal or nonexistent and the sense of partnership absent.
Although the UK’s relationship with its Caribbean Overseas territories has been relatively stable over a long period, there is now a growing number of voices arguing for fresh thinking to overcome what one UK academic described in a paper as an increasingly fragile relationship.
Early this year, Cambridge University’s Center for Science and Policy held a workshop on the future of the UK’s overseas territories after Brexit. He concluded that expectations on both sides needed to be revisited and more clarity needed on the relationship.
A good starting point for the UK’s overseas territories in the Caribbean could be an informed island-led discussion involving academia, civil society, government and the opposition, to explain what they could, rather than Britain , expected from a more advanced, fairer scheme. future relationship.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council
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