Future of Britain and the OTs: soft colonialism or modern partnership?
As the General Election in Britain approaches, the country’s continuing political turmoil over Brexit continues to overshadow the strained relationship with the Overseas Territories.
The critical issue is whether Britain and OTs will have a closer relationship going forward or a more distant one.
A cloud of uncertainty has hung over relations ever since 2018 when the British Government, in response to pressure from its parliament, chose to legislate the adoption of public registers of beneficial ownership by the OTs without their consent and before public registers are established as a global standard.
The British measure will have far-reaching consequences for the economies of Bermuda, British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands if implementation is forced upon them, given their high dependence on financial services that accounts for a large share of gross domestic product, employment and government revenue.
The OTs’ discontent was amplified by the exclusion of the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man from the British legislation, despite these jurisdictions also being among the so-called “offshore” centres that fly the Union Jack, which supposedly should be aligned with Britain. The exclusion of the Channel Islands and inclusion of the OTs demonstrated the clear bias of British decision-makers against the OTs.
Relations between the OTs and Britain were further strained this year by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s publication of a report on Global Britain and the British Overseas Territories that recommended that Britain force the OTs to legalise same-sex marriage, abolish belonger status as a category of citizenship conferred by the territory governments, extend voters’ rights to non-belongers and widen eligibility criteria for elected office to include persons not constitutionally permitted to do so at present.
The FAC’s blatant disregard for the OTs’ constitutions exposed the colonial thinking that remains among a number of British parliamentarians.
The FAC report, coupled with the British imposition of public registers on the OTs, reversed much of the goodwill gained after the British military and wider British Government came to the aid of the Caribbean territories that were devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.
British Government attempts to pacify the OTs over the public registers issue by setting an implementation deadline of 2023 has not succeeded in restoring relations to their former state as serious doubts remain among the OTs as to whether they still have a modern partnership with the “motherland”.
While the British Government maintains that it is committed to a modern partnership under the 2012 White Paper on the Overseas Territories, the signals that have come from certain quarters of the British Parliament indicate that respect for OTs’ self-governance is diminishing in Britain’s premier political institution, which is considered to be sovereign.
Britain must be careful to not allow itself to drift towards a soft colonialism, regardless of the justifications by its parliamentarians for overriding the OTs’ constitutions.
Concrete steps will have to be taken by the British Government to reassure the OTs that it is not its intention to revert to a colonial posture towards them.
Among other things, Britain must put on the table for consideration, some form of constitutional safeguard for all OTs to restrain its government and parliament from arbitrarily legislating for the territories without their consent, particularly in areas of governance constitutionally delegated to them and over which they have managed successfully on balance.
Also critical is the preparation of a new UK White Paper on the OTs, whose guiding policy should reinforce the principle of self-governance and affirm the OTs’ inalienable right to self-determination under the United Nations Charter (ie, Article 73-74), UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (1960) and related UN resolutions and decisions.
The OTs should seize every available opportunity to push Britain on their future relationship, including participating in dialogue within British society on its own post-Brexit future should the country successfully leave the European Union.
The OTs have called on Britain for the past three years to support a post-Brexit economic partnership underpinned by international trade.
This has gained some traction with a UK-OT International Trade Summit held in the Cayman Islands in June. The OTs are well positioned to help facilitate British trade through their own trade links in Asia and various regional markets around the world and expertise as financial jurisdictions.
Britain in turn can assist the OTs in accessing new markets for their goods and services as the British Government negotiates new trade deals with partners in regions such as Latin America.
The Commonwealth would also feature prominently in a future UK-OT economic partnership as Britain seeks to tap markets among the political bloc’s fast-growing economies in Africa and Asia.
Beyond trade, the future partnership between the OTs and Britain should extend to the challenge of climate change and pursuit of sustainable development.
British support to the OTs on climate-change adaptation should include grants to all OTs in line with British funding to Small Island Developing States through the Green Climate Fund and Commonwealth Secretariat. This approach would assist the OTs in building climate resilience and underscore British leadership in this area.
Britain should also establish a sustainable development fund to replace EU funding for sustainable development that will be lost by the OTs in the event of Brexit.
The UK-OT relationship remains under strain, but this can be overcome if Britain is committed to renewing its modern partnership with the OTs under a new policy framework that reinforces the self-governance of the OTs and is buttressed by constitutional safeguards to protect them from British overreach. These can be overlaid by a future economic partnership and meaningful co-operation on climate change and sustainable development.
Once the General Election is over, it is in the interest of both Britain and OTs to reset relations and find the right balance for a post-Brexit relationship going forward.
• Benito Wheatley is a Policy Fellow at Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy, and the former British Virgin Islands representative to Britain and the European Union. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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