By Michael Jarvis
With the United Kingdom locked in an acrimonious spat with the European Union - and internally - over Brexit, it’s becoming well nigh impossible to find a space for the Overseas Territories amongst the pressing issues occupying the attention of the ‘mother country’ at present.
The situation is further complicated by the raft of new faces at the forefront of the British government preoccupied with Brexit; the process of the UK’s exit from the EU.
On the surface, the fact that new prime minister Boris Johnson was a previous foreign secretary under whose portfolio the OTs ‘resided’, might be somewhat reassuring.
Prime Minister Johnson is no stranger to the OTs having personally - although some might argue, belatedly - jetting out to the Caribbean territories in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes in 2017 to personally hand out hurricane relief.
His subsequent commitment - before he abruptly quit the government of Theresa May - to ensure that hurricane relief, and more importantly preparation, are well in place after that experience might be paying off.
The standard UK naval disaster response presence in the Caribbean, especially for the OTs, has been ‘beefed up’ on the back of that.
However, while that might have been a direct result of Mr Johnson’s intervention as foreign secretary, his position regarding the OTs as their prime minister is still an unknown quantum.
Prime Minister Johnson has not only inherited Brexit, which was the key focus of his near obsession with the top role.
He has also inherited the challenges of the relationship between the UK as the administrative power/mother country and its remnants of empire scattered across the globe - most of them in the Caribbean.
In his government, that challenge now sits squarely with his new foreign minister, Dominic Raab, an arch-Brexiteer, but whose take on where the OTs figure in that process is quite unclear.
It’s noteworthy that there would have been an overlap between Prime Minister Johnson being in office as foreign secretary and the start of the most recent UK Foreign Affairs Committee’s (FAC) parliamentary inquiry into the future of relations with the overseas territories.
By the time he demitted that role and set his eyes once again on the lofty prize of the prime ministership, the FAC had concluded its inquiry.
Its key recommendations met a firm rejection of its key findings by the Theresa May government via the office of the foreign secretary, at that time Mr Johnson’s successor Jeremy Hunt (who was to become his main challenger for the role of prime minister).
Mr Johnson prevailed, Mr Hunt quit the post and the OTs now have their third foreign secretary in as many years.
The key and most controversial recommendations in the FAC’s report, which were rejected by the previous Theresa may government (and Mr Hunt as foreign secretary) were; a demand that the OTs adopt same-sex marriage to a given timeline - with the threat of being imposed by imperial decree, and granting voting and elected rights to all British citizens in the islands.
Will those be revisited?
Another central issue that, despite objections from the British government was previously adopted by parliament, is the matter of the public disclosure of beneficial owners of companies registered in the OTs, especially in their lucrative offshore financial services sector.
That doesn’t seem likely to get any push-back from the present Johnson administration.
There are other issues pending coming out of both the report and the annual Joint Ministerial Council (JMC) meetings between the OTs and their UK administrative counterparts.
And there were other aspects of the recommendations which, despite government supposedly being a continuity, is no guarantee of status quo.
In the last JMC plenary session, the British government - then the Theresa May administration - committed to:
• “reaffirmed the UK government’s commitment to taking the Territories’ priorities into account as the UK prepares to leave the EU, including in relation to funding, trade, the environment and education.”
• and gave assurances that “in the unlikely scenario that we leave the EU without a deal, existing projects under certain EU funding streams will be guaranteed by Her Majesty’s Treasury for the lifetime of those projects.”
It is now highly likely that the UK will leave the EU without a deal following the political strategy trajectory of the Johnson administration and its current stalemate with the EU over Brexit.
The EU is adamant that it already has a deal negotiated over two years with the Theresa May government, and which included the UK’s assurances to the OTs.
But with the Johnson government committed to a no-deal Brexit by the next deadline of October 31st on the Brexit calendar, the wildly shifting political sands, tides and affiliations, all against a backdrop of constitutional uncertainties, the issues for the OTs seem all but on-hold/status quo for the time being.
However, amidst all this, at least one thing is certain; Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, widely considered as a champion or at least a sympathetic ear for the OTs, retains his position as Minister of State for the Overseas Territories...subject to change.
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