By David Jessop
News Americas, LONDON, England, Mon. July 23, 2012: Recent Caricom Heads of Government meetings have recorded concern about one or another aspect of the relationship between the UK and its overseas territories.
The July 4 to 6th meeting in St Lucia was no exception. There, the combative Chief Minister of Anguilla, Hubert Hughes, obtained the agreement of Caricom Heads to send a delegation of Foreign Ministers to the island to report on his difficult working relationship with the UK-appointed Governor.
At prior meetings, other issues relating to the UK Overseas Territories have also surfaced. The most significant of these has been Caricom’s concern about the UK’s 2009 decision to impose direct rule in the Turks and Caicos Islands (now due to hold elections on November 9th). This constitutional suspension arose out of serious allegations of corruption and more recently charges being brought against the former Premier, former ministers, opposition figures, local lawyers, officials and foreign investors.
At the heart of some of the independent Caribbean‘s criticism of the way in which the British Dependent Territories are governed seems to lie a more general uncertainty about the nature of dependency, and where the metropolitan power’s authority and the locally-elected government’s responsibilities begin and end.
This is hardly surprising as the relationship is regularly modified by personalities, the unique character of politics in very small states, and a lack of understanding among some UK officials and expatriates about the effect that their decisions have on small, often conservative, thoughtful Caribbean societies with the consequential unspoken result that islanders feel they have been slighted or ignored.
This has not been helped in the past some extraordinary examples of poor governance and the absence of UK control, or the understandable frustration in some territories where, in the past, popular locally elected ministers have been faced with Governors whose ability to undertake what is a very complex role, has been limited.
However, what is now happening in the UK’s overseas territories should change this and result in development and a much improved dialogue, providing both the overseas territories and the independent Caribbean with a measure of reassurance. In this, an important element is the genuine interest being shown in improving the relationship by the UK Minister responsible for the UK’s policy towards the Overseas Territories and the Caribbean, Henry Bellingham.
Earlier this month, the British government published a White Paper setting out its future policy towards all fourteen of its dependent territories. The document reflected a decision by the UK Foreign Secretary, arrived at while in opposition, that Overseas Territories matter, need to be embraced, and should be allowed to manage their own affairs within mutually agreed parameters on good governance and economic management.
The new line formally recognises the diversity and difference between all OTs and the need for each to have its own relationship with London. It also accepts the need for constitutional evolution, and sets out in some detail an approach that amounts to re-engagement
For instance, it makes clear that all UK Government Departments must now become involved and be committed to supporting economic growth, development and resilience. This is coupled with an insistence that the UK will ensure ‘the same high standards of governance as in the UK, including in the areas of human rights, rule of law and integrity in public life’. It also states unequivocally that Britain ‘will tackle corruption in all its forms’ and ensure high quality public financial management by launching a long-term programme of support for the public services in the overseas territories.
What the 128 page White Paper does is make clear the informal contract that will exist by setting out the nature of the future relationship and the ways in which Britain intends meeting the wishes of islanders while ensuring situations of the kind that arose in Turks and Caicos do not happen again.
By the end of 2012 European Union policy towards all of its Overseas Territories including those in the Caribbean should also have become much clearer.
Over the last two years Europe has been gradually developing a new policy that will define its relationship with the overseas territories that remain to a greater or lesser extent related to one or another EU member state.
Sometime before December 2013 the EU Council of Ministers will approve a new 193 page Overseas Association Decision which will provide a foundation for the European Commission’s policies towards Europe’s Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT).
The EC also says it wants to modernise the relationship with its OCTs. In doing so it puts forward a similar case to the UK. It notes that as ‘classical development cooperation with its focus on poverty reduction’ no longer addresses OCT needs, a new partnership should provide a more flexible trade regime. It suggests its core aim is to strengthen the economic position of the OCTs by increasing their competitiveness and resilience.
Taken together these policy documents have the effect of locking Europe as a whole, plus the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands individually and in different ways, into the region for the foreseeable future.
This more holistic approach on the part of the UK and Europe suggests that the independent nations of the Caribbean ought, as they consider the Caribbean’s strategic re-positioning, to analyse how to factor in and better utilise changing external policy towards dependent neighbours.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org