The Overseas Territories and the Commonwealth: one family
By Oliver Wilderspin, Communications and External Relations Manager
This article was originally written for the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs, a new think tank which FOTBOT is glad to support.
At 23:59 on the 31st of January 2020, the EU flag was lowered over Gibraltar. In its place, the
flag of the Commonwealth of Nations was raised.
Gibraltar did not choose to leave the EU, but when they did so in 2020 alongside the UK they saw an opportunity to symbolise their membership of our global Commonwealth family. As one of the only places in the world where the Commonwealth Flag is permanently flown – on Government buildings, at the border and on top of the famous Rock – Gibraltar shows just how important the Commonwealth is to the British Overseas Territories. Although they do not have full membership of the organisation, few places benefit more from their Commonwealth links than the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories.
The links between the Overseas Territories and the Commonwealth are found across the world, but are perhaps most noticeable in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, five Overseas Territories sit alongside seven Commonwealth Realms and three Commonwealths Republics. These account for over half the nations and territories in the region.
A perfect example of the cooperation between BOTs and Commonwealth members is the the University of the West Indies. With 50,000 students, it is the largest university in the Caribbean, with the highest international ranking of any university in the region. UWI serves the needs of 17 Caribbean states and territories, all of which are British Overseas Territories and Commonwealth members. Founded in 1948, at the initiative of the United Kingdom, it has campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Antigua, as well as a distance-learning branch. Coincidentally, its primary (and oldest) campus in Mona, Jamaica, was built on the site of a camp used to shelter Gibraltarian evacuees during WW2. UWI alumni include 25 current or former Caribbean Heads of Government, 3 noble prize winners, and distinguished individuals in fields ranging from law to astrophysics. These links between the BOTs and the wider Commonwealth family has had a significant impact on many generations of West Indians, and continues to do so today.
This Caribbean cooperation in the Caribbean also extends to the political and economic sphere. Since 1981, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean (OECS) has led the integration of Commonwealth nations and British Overseas Territories in the Lesser Antilles. The OECS is comprised of six Commonwealth realms, one Commonwealth Republic and a British Overseas Territory (Montserrat), with Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands as associate members. At the heart of the OECS is a shared currency – the Eastern Caribbean Dollar – pegged to the US dollar at EC$2.7 to US$1. With Elizabeth II appearing on all EC$ coins and bank notes, it’s clear that their shared Commonwealth identity is at the heart of the relations between OECS members.
And OECS goes far beyond its monetary union. The OECS operates a diplomatic mission to the EU in Brussels, and to the various international organisational organs based in Geneva, representing the interests of its members in these great global cities. The OECS also hosts the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal for OECS members, superseded only by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In 2010 the scope of the OECS was increased when its founding treaty was revised, creating an economic union with free movement of goods and people. The Commonwealth is at the centre of the links between the Caribbean Overseas Territories and their neighbours; their citizens and economies benefit greatly from these ties.
Overseas Territory/Commonwealth links can be found well beyond the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. On the island of Cyprus there is a close working relationship between the UK’s Sovereign Base Areas and the neighbouring Republic of Cyprus, a Commonwealth member. Over 10,000 Cypriots live and work in the Sovereign Base Areas, with Cypriot law applied across the bases in order to allow locals to live their lives, for the most part, as if they were in the Republic. Whilst services such as policing are managed by the UK authorities, most police officers are Greek or Turkish Cypriot. In 2022 economic relations took a significant step forward when the British authorities lifted a decades long ban on property developing, unleashing in the territories the potential for economic growth and allowing local Cypriots to reap the benefits.
In the Pacific, the tiny Pitcairn Islands are deeply reliant on links with their Commonwealth neighbours in New Zealand - though, at 3,300 miles away, the Kiwis are ‘neighbours’ in the broadest sense of the word. The Governor of the Pitcairn Islands is concurrently the British High Commissioner to New Zealand, meaning that much of the island’s administration is run from Wellington. The islands also use the New Zealand dollar as their currency, and the island uses a version of the New Zealand educational curriculum. The islands' only educational facility, Pulau School, serves children aged 5-14, with older children attending boarding school in New Zealand. The links between Pitcairn and New Zealand came to international attention in 2004 when New Zealand judges, lawyers and officials led a high profile child sex abuse trial on the island. Owing to the Common Law legal system shared by Britain and New Zealand, the British Government was able to appoint three Kiwi judges to the newly created Pitcairn Supreme Court, which carried out the trial.
Against an entirely different backdrop, the Commonwealth connection is the bedrock of Britain's place in the Antarctic, and has been for over a century. The UK, New Zealand and Australia all have territorial claims in Antarctica, which together cover over 56% of the continent. These three countries recognise each others' claims, along with those of France and Norway, and do not recognise the claims of Argentina and Chile which overlap with the British Antarctic Territory. The story of human exploration of Antarctica has the Commonwealth at its heart. The UK, NZ and Australia were at the forefront of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century. Many of the great British expeditions relied on ports in New Zealand, Tasmania and the Falkland Islands to launch their voyages. Perhaps most famously, Australian photographer Frank Hurley accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton on the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, taking photographs that have allowed this extraordinary feat of human bravery and survival to be immortalised for generations to come. This expedition failed in its goal to carry out the first overland crossing of Antarctica, but 40 years later this feat was achieved by a Commonwealth expedition led by British explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs and New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary. This cooperation continues today, through the Antarctic Treaty System of which these three Commonwealth states are founding members, and through the cutting edge scientific research in which these countries are world leaders.
Whether it be in the frozen deserts of Antarctica, or the tropical islands of the Caribbean, the British Overseas Territories are deeply reliant on their connection with the wider Commonwealth. In areas ranging from the political to the economic, and the military to the scientific, these links are vital to the Overseas Territories, central to their economic development and prosperity. Our global Commonwealth family is an important part of Britain's place in the world, and as the flag over the Rock of Gibraltar demonstrates, few places understand this more than the British Overseas Territories.