The Overseas Territories’ (OTs) place in post-Brexit Britain remains unclear as the United Kingdom (UK) begins life outside of the European Union (EU).
Since the Conservative Party’s landslide victory at the polls on 12 December 2019, a coherent UK-OTs agenda has not been articulated.
The absence of such an agenda is apparent in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ambitious plans for Britain over the next five-years that do not identify the inhabited OTs as a priority, with the exception of security commitments to the Falklands and Gibraltar. This would suggest that the UK Government has not yet considered a new OTs policy for the post-Brexit era.
If the default position of the UK is to roll over the policies of the previous Government led by Prime Minister Johnson, and Theresa May MP before him, it may mean that the OTs will only feature in plans where the UK has global leadership ambitions on issues such as ocean conservation, climate change and reform of the global financial system.
However, this would limit the UK-OTs agenda to: the OTs’ implementation of public registers of beneficial ownership (public registers) by 2023 that primarily affects Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and Cayman Islands; the inclusion of Pitcairn, Ascension Island, Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunha in the UK blue belt programme of marine protected areas (MPAs); and UK support for the continued recovery of Anguilla, BVI and the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) from the September 2017 hurricanes in the Caribbean.
These initiatives are in line with UK international calls for public registers to become a global standard by 2023 and for 30 percent of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030, as well as UK plans to host global climate change talks at COP 26 in Glasgow in November where the UK Government will be keen to showcase its leadership on climate resilience.
However, the UK-OTs agenda should entail more than gestures of fitting the OTs into a few areas of UK national interest. The time is ripe for a new partnership as Britain forges a new role in the world. Such a partnership should be one that is mutually beneficial and conducive to stable constitutional relations.
The first order of business is to repair the damage caused to the UK-OTs relationship by the UK’s arbitrary imposition of public registers on the OTs without their consent through UK legislation. A dangerous precedent was set for UK interference in areas of responsibility constitutionally reserved for the OTs that are self-governing. The issue remains a source of friction between the UK and some OTs.
Restoring the constitutional balance that was lost should be high on the UK-OTs agenda.
To achieve this goal, a new constitutional settlement is needed, accompanied by a revised policy framework to support cooperation.
Constitutionally, all OTs require some form of constitutional protection from arbitrary UK interference in their areas of constitutional responsibility. The UK should also not be selective in which OTs it agrees should have such protection extended to them.
In addition, UK-OTs policy should be realigned to direct UK support to the OTs in areas such as economic development, social cohesion, climate resilience, sustainable development and public service delivery at squarely helping the OTs exercise the maximum degree of self-governance possible.
For those OTs whose growth and development have taken them beyond the bounds of their current constitutional arrangements, the UK Government should support their efforts to obtain more autonomy, which can in turn support a more mature relationship with the UK.
Furthermore, the UK should acknowledge a ‘free association’ as one of the three options sanctioned by the United Nations (UN) as a final political status for those OTs presently on its list of non-independent territories, including 10 OTs constitutionally linked to the UK.
In a free association with the UK, an OT would become an independent state in which it would exercise sovereignty over its own affairs, except in those areas of state (e.g. security and defence) where its Government agrees the UK would retain sovereign responsibility on their behalf.
Models of free association exist in the world today that include the United States’ (US) relationships with the Marshal Islands, Palau and Federated States of Micronesia.
Post-Brexit Britain and the OTs require a new framework for cooperation in a post-Brexit world. This is necessary to shed the last vestiges of Britain’s colonial legacy.
The upcoming Joint Ministerial Council in London in March is an opportunity to set a new agenda for the future that should include a new constitutional settlement between the UK and OTs, preparation of a new progressive UK White Paper to reframe Britain’s relationship with the OTs, UK-OTs engagement on the place of the OTs in the UK’s future relationship with the EU and the UK-OTs response to the negative effects of climate change.