By Michael Jarvis, London UK
It takes quite a bit probing through the dense thicket of information in the ongoing UK election campaign to find specific references to the Overseas Territories (OTs).
But on close examination of several manifestos, there are a few mentions, albeit largely echoing previous Brexit-related commitments made by former prime minister Theresa May.
The 2018 Joint Ministerial Council (JMC) plenary between the UK and OTs conducted under the aegis of then-prime minister May, “reaffirmed the British 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.”
It spoke of “assurances given by the UK Government 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.”
Before heading to the polls with his EU-approved Brexit deal, current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had published a ‘no-deal-readiness’ paper which sought to give some comfort to the OTs.
It largely echoed what his predecessor as Conservative prime minister had pledged.
“The Government has in place a comprehensive plan for engaging with the Overseas Territories. This includes regular ministerial teleconferences, and official level meetings with their London Representatives. The HMG Guarantee for EU-funded programmes also applies to the British Overseas Territories. A technical notice detailing the scope of the Guarantee as it applies to the Overseas Territories was published in October 2018,” it stated.
It had also advised the OTs to “continue to engage closely with the FCO(Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and other UK Government departments to prepare for Brexit and identify opportunities as they arise,” adding that, “the Government will provide technical assistance to Overseas Territories so that businesses are prepared to trade with the EU as non-EU Associated Territories.”
However, the prospects of a no-deal Brexit have been ruled out by legislation forced through in the British parliament that Prime Minister Johnson has been forced to accept.
At a meeting in the Cayman Islands in June this year in preparation for the what would have been this month’s JMC, an agenda was drawn up to underpin the previous commitment made by the British government.
Issues highlighted included: trade, environmental issues and funding, banking, oceans policy and frozen pensions as well as the February report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on the future of relations between the UK and the OTs.
But since then, political developments in the UK have overtaken much of what might have been planned.
There’s been a change of leadership in the ruling Conservative Party, there's a new prime minister, the Brexit process has gone through a series of bewildering twists and turns, and a general election is set for December 12th.
Suffice it to say that the OT’s have not fully dropped off the agenda…although they might have been sidelined by the sheer pace and intensity of political developments in the ‘mother country’ over the past few months.
In the Conservatives manifesto issues pertaining to the OTs are buried amongst priority UK ‘four-nation’ concerns principally addressing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and are tucked in between other issues which impact them either directly or just obliquely
The Conservatives say: “We will also forge stronger links with the Commonwealth (of which the OTs are a part), which boasts some of the world’s most dynamic economies such as India.”
A commitment to push through the much-debated Companies Beneficial Ownership disclosure system is echoed in other areas on taxes where the party vows to “create a single, beefed-up AntiTax Evasion unit in HMRC that covers all duties and taxes, from individual errors to deliberate noncompliance – which is put on a legislative footing... to avoid profit-shifting by multinational companies to avoid paying taxes.”
The Labour Party also comes down hard on tax matters that could have consequences for the OTs.
Its leader Jeremy Corbyn has already spoken of a Labour government taking a tough line on tax transparency, going as far as imposing direct rule if the territories don't comply.
Elsewhere in its manifest, Labour also promises to have:
“- a standalone Department for International Development (DfID), with an aid budget of at least 0.7% of gross national income. We will introduce the reduction of inequality as a goal for all aid spending alongside existing poverty reduction and gender equality goals.
- continued participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including in such vital areas of co-operation as the environment, scientific research and culture.
- allow the people of the Chagos Islands and their descendants the right to return to the lands from which they should never have been removed.
- and conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule.”
For those UK citizens who have relocated abroad, including to the OTs, Labour says it “will ensure that the pensions of UK citizens living overseas rise in line with pensions in Britain.” This was one of the issues raised during June’s pre-JMC meeting in the Cayman Islands.
For their part, the Liberal Democrats say they will: “champion global anti-corruption initiatives and ensure the UK and British Overseas Territories have publicly-accessible registers of beneficial ownership of companies registered in their jurisdictions."
The LibDems also pledge to “remain firmly committed to spending 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on aid.”
On the contrary, the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage is proposing to slash foreign aid on the basis that those funds are better spent in the UK.
But while matters affecting the OTs are largely on the periphery of the election campaigning in the UK and dwell heavily on tax-related matters, it is nevertheless clear that regardless of the outcome there could be some policy impact…although in the main it might just be business as usual for relations between the territories and the mother country.
That is except for the specific case of Gibraltar.
Due to the Brexit implications of its shared EU border with Spain over a long-standing territorial dispute with the UK, all the major parties have flagged that up in their manifestos.
Gibraltar, the only OT which voted in the 2016 referendum (it lobbied for it), is also the only one to have its own representative Member of the European Parliament (MEP).
It’s now seeking representation in Westminster in at least the House of Lords where it will have a direct voice.
That could set a template for other OTs which may wish to consider that route...although in the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry that was not a preferred option of many Gibraltar's sister territories.