By Benito Wheatley
As the United Kingdom (UK) General Election approaches, the country’s ongoing political turmoil over Brexit continues to overshadow the strained relationship between the Overseas Territories’ (OTs) and UK.
The critical issue is whether the UK and OTs will have a closer relationship going forward or a more distant one.
A cloud of uncertainty has hung over OT-UK relations ever since 2018 when the UK Government, in response to pressure from the UK 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 OTs discontent was amplified by the exclusion of the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man from the UK legislation, despite these jurisdictions also being among the so called ‘offshore’ centres that fly the Union Jack which supposedly should be aligned with the UK. The exclusion of the Channel Islands and inclusion of the OTs demonstrated the clear bias of UK decisionmakers against the OTs.
Relations between the OTs and UK were further strained in 2019 by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) publication of a report on Global Britain and the British Overseas Territories that recommended the UK 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 presently not constitutionally permitted to do so.
The FAC’s blatant disregard for the OTs’ constitutions exposed the colonial thinking that remains among a number of UK parliamentarians.
The FAC report, coupled with the UK imposition of public registers on the OTs, reversed much of the goodwill gained by the UK after the British military and wider UK Government came to the aid of the Caribbean Territories that were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.
UK 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 UK.
While the UK 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 UK Parliament indicate that respect for OTs’ self-governance is diminishing in the UK’s premier political institution which is considered to be sovereign.
The UK must be careful to not allow itself to drift toward a soft colonialism, regardless of the justifications by UK parliamentarians for overriding the OTs’ constitutions.
Concrete steps will have to be taken by the UK Government to reassure the OTs that it is not the UK’s intention to revert to a colonial posture toward them.
Among other things, the UK must put on the table for consideration some form of constitutional safeguard for all OTs to restrain the UK Government and UK Parliament from arbitrarily legislating for the OTs 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 (UN) Charter (i.e. 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 the UK on their future relationship, including participating in dialogue within British society on the UK’s own post-Brexit future should the country successfully leave the EU.
The OTs have called on the UK 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 UK trade through their own trade links in Asia and various regional markets around the world and expertise as financial jurisdictions.
The UK in turn can assist the OTs in accessing new markets for their goods and services as the UK 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 the UK 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 UK should extend to the challenge of climate change and pursuit of sustainable development.
UK support to the OTs on climate change adaptation should include grants to all OTs in line with UK funding to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) through the Green Climate Fund and Commonwealth Secretariat. This approach would assist the OTs in building climate resilience and underscore UK leadership in this area.
The UK should also establish a Sustainable Development Fund (SDF) to replace European Union (EU) funding for sustainable development that will be lost by the OTs in the event of Brexit.
The OT-UK relationship remains under strain, but this can be overcome if the UK 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 UK overreach. These can be overlaid by a future economic partnership and meaningful cooperation on climate change and sustainable development.
Once the UK General Election is over, it is in the interest of both the UK and OTs to reset relations and find the right balance for a post-Brexit relationship going forward.
The author Benito Wheatley is a Policy Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP).
*Belonger status is a legal classification normally associated with British Overseas Territories. It refers to people who have close ties to a specific territory, normally by birth or ancestry. The requirements for belonger status, and the rights that it confers, vary from territory to territory.