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How Brexit Has Stirred Controversy in the Caribbean

The fact that the Caribbean has the highest concentration of territories classified as non-self-governing by the United Nations is a lasting reminder of the region’s colonial past. At first glance, a political map of the Caribbean may seem like a kaleidoscope of independent microstates scattered among the remaining overseas possessions of postcolonial powers. In 2000, the Overseas Countries and Territories Association (OCTA) was founded in Brussels to promote cooperation between the European Union and the overseas dependencies of its member states. In the context of the Caribbean, the organization has played a vital role in the development of the otherwise isolated territories.

The finalization of Brexit, however, has resulted not only in the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union but also in the removal of the United Kingdom’s Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) from the rest of OCTA. While Gibraltar—the only territory that was allowed to vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum—received considerable public attention during the withdrawal negotiations, the United Kingdom’s five Caribbean territories have been largely overlooked.

A Geopolitical Kaleidoscope

Apart from the North and South American countries that comprise the region’s continental periphery, there are a total of thirteen independent states in the Caribbean today. Both Cuba and the Dominican Republic are former Spanish colonies, while Haiti was once a colony of France. However, the vast majority of these states—Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as Trinidad and Tobago—are former British colonies. All of them remain associated with the United Kingdom through the Commonwealth of Nations, although Barbados has voted to join Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago in removing the monarchy as its head of state at the end of 2021.

Compared to other regions of the world, the Caribbean’s ratio of dependent territories to independent states is relatively high. The United States governs Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It also claims possession of Navassa Island as well as the Bajo Nuevo and Serranilla Banks, the first of which is disputed with Haiti and the latter two with Colombia. The islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint Martin are all integral departments of France and thus members of both the European Union’s Schengen area and single market.

Besides its overseas departments, France also governs the territory of Saint Barthelemy. Similarly, the Netherlands administers the territories of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten. The United Kingdom, for its part, rules over Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, as well as the Turks and Caicos Islands. Until Brexit, all of these territories were associated with the European Union through OCTA. Following the United Kingdom’s formal break with the European Union, however, they now find themselves drifting in unchartered waters.

What Brexit Means for the British Caribbean

Due to their geographic isolation, small sizes, and limited natural resources, the OCTA members of the Caribbean have faced considerable issues with economic development. Through its cooperation with European Union institutions, OCTA’s priorities are to make advancements in the following key areas: environment and climate change, renewable energies, financial services, trade and regional integration, as well as education and innovation. Like all OCTA members, the United Kingdom territories have benefited considerably from their relationship with the European Union.

Following Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the European Development Fund (EDF) allocated €7 million for the reconstruction of houses and an additional €4 million for the building of a weather radar on the Cayman Islands. Similarly, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ike and Hannah in 2008, the EDF granted €6.25 million to the Turks and Caicos Islands for reparations. As part of its 2014-2020 budget, the EDF contributed €14 million to Anguilla, €18.4 million to Montserrat, and €14.6 million to the Turks and Caicos Islands to strengthen their respective private sectors. During this time, only Montserrat was receiving additional budgetary aid from the United Kingdom.

Of all the United Kingdom’s Caribbean territories, Anguilla was perhaps the most dependent on its relationship with the European Union. Before Brexit, financial assistance from the EDF accounted for 36% of Anguilla’s total budget, while the Dutch territory of Sint Eustatius was the source of 90% of Anguilla’s energy supply. Food, medicine, bottled water, and even mail would arrive in Anguilla from the French department of Saint Martin. In fact, both islands are so close that they are visible from each other’s coastlines and share a marine border. No longer members of OCTA, Anguillan residents have lost their right to visa-free travel in the Schengen area.

What the Future Holds

The OCTA Ministerial Conference that took place in December 2020 made it a priority to emphasize “the importance to maintain the long cooperation between UK territories and OCTs associated with the EU” and decided to explore “the future collaboration with the UK Overseas Territories with the objective of the finalisation and signature of a Memorandum of Understanding between UKOTA and OCTA by the end of March 2021.” UKOTA has also declared that its priorities are “having tariffs lifted, establishing a new relationship with [the] EU, and looking at what mechanisms the UK government will be putting in place to replace EU funding streams.”

James Duddridge, former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and supporter of the Leave camp, argued that “an independent Britain can spend more time developing [its] historic ties rather than be shackled by the regulation and political infrastructure that is a federal union” and added that “OTs value the relationship with the UK more than the EU.” This statement was made in 2016, the year that the future of the United Kingdom’s overseas territories was decided in a referendum from which they were almost entirely excluded. Though the Brexit process is now complete, it is not too late for the United Kingdom to reconsider what is best for its Caribbean territories, whether that means playing a more active role in supporting them or renegotiating a relationship with OCTA.