Why British overseas territories face an uncertain future in a post Brexit world
Pressure is mounting for Theresa May to secure a good deal with the European Union and as the March deadline looms, there is now more than ever, renewed scepticism on what can be really be achieved in the last remaining months, days and hours. With Britain running out of time and negotiations threatening to reach their eleventh and darkest hour, the stakes have been raised even higher for our many nations, regions and territories. Britain is a family of nations and a mismanaged Brexit is not only set to cause wide reaching consequences for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but will be a major sticking point for Britain’s 16 overseas territories (OTs). The overseas territories are scattered across the world and are situated thousands of miles from Britain’s shores. A large number are situated in the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, with one notable exception being Gibraltar, which, along with military bases RAF Akrotiri and RAF Dhekelia on the island of Cyprus, falls within the European Union - albeit with a ‘bespoke’ package of alignment with EU policy and structures. It is well known that Gibraltar faces a possible closed border with neighbouring Spain as well as losing the right to provide services such as finance and online gaming to the rest of the EU, but what is less known is what will happen to the other 15 territories?
The overseas territories are Britain’s best kept secret. Though they are far from the desks of Whitehall, they certainly cannot remove themselves from the increasing uncertainty set in motion by the vote to leave the EU. Overseas territories are becoming increasingly anxious and this is not without sound reason. Excepting the three territories without any permanent civilian populations: the British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, the remaining British Overseas Territories are home to populations which could be adversely affected if Brexit negotiations were to crumble. While Gibraltar is the only territory which is a functioning member of the EU (the curious case of the military bases in Cyprus notwithstanding), nine territories are directly associated with the European Union. These include Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Overseas territories are deeply wedded to EU legislative processes to such a large extent that any implications of a badly managed Brexit could put them in a lot of hot water.
The Overseas Territories are now poised in the wings of the negotiating process as they wait in anticipation to see how the withdrawal from the bloc will affect them. Only the citizens of Gibraltar were given a vote in the UK’s membership of the EU with the other 15 territories being left stranded without a voice despite being exposed to multiple risks affecting their security and economic wellbeing. In the weeks running up to the referendum, only Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands received substantial media coverage despite there being significant risks to other territories such as Anguilla if negotiations proved fractious. Many of Britain’s Caribbean territories have thriving tourism sectors, although Montserrat is still struggling to recover from its major volcanic eruptions just two decades ago. While they all vary economically, they are all reliant on EU aid programmes for vital infrastructure that support all but the wealthiest of the OTs.
Anguilla is anxious about the times ahead - communication between the government and the people of Anguilla hasn’t been the best. Anguilla receives funding from the EU and now more recently the UK’s Overseas Development department (Dfid). Neighbouring Anguilla is a French and Dutch territory which is used for essential imports such as fuel, water and basic medicines.
The Governor of Anguilla announced in early 2019 that they have reached a bilateral agreement with their neighbours that their relationship shall continue whatever happens between the UK and EU.
The UK has also announced to fill any funding gaps to the territory in any scenario.
While Brexit negotiations steam ahead, OTs are bracing themselves for a difficult few years ahead and are waiting until the terms which we leave the European Union are finally revealed. Much depends on what is negotiated in the subsequent weeks; if a looser trading agreement is finalised it could unleash a myriad of new trading opportunities for British OTs. However, there are concerns that Brexit talks will fail to deliver with Gibraltar’s chief minister arguing in 2016 that “a hard Brexit would really be an existential threat to our economic model”. Although Gibraltar is certainly seeking new ways of staying connected to the EU, British Caribbean territories are looking the other way by aligning themselves with the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states and becoming welded to their EU Economic Partnership Agreements. Whatever happens next is anyone’s guess, but the following weeks are crucial and have the potential to shape their futures for decades to come.
Sarah Cooper-Lesadd, 29th January 2019
Edited by Will Radford 31st January 2019