Towards a Post-Brexit UK-Caribbean Relationship

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Nand C. Bardouille, Ph.D.

(Shridath Ramphal Centre Trading Thoughts) Having not met in five years, the United Kingdom-Caribbean Ministerial Forum (hereafter Ministerial Forum) that met on 18 March 2021, for the tenth time was a meeting of many firsts. It was the first such meeting to take place in the post-Brexit era. And it assumed perhaps its highest profile yet, coming as it did on the heels of the March 16th release of the UK’s much anticipated integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. Speaking of ‘eras’, the Tenth Ministerial Forum was the first one to be held in the COVID-19 era. In the circumstances, it took place virtually.

Setting the Scene

The Ministerial Forum, a high-level meeting that is to take place biennially, brings together the following: Foreign Ministers of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Dominican Republic, UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) ministers and representatives from UK overseas territories, among others. As the administrative arm of the Community, the CARICOM Secretariat plays an important backstopping role.

Traditionally, the two sides have leveraged the Ministerial Forum to make steady progress in their partnership, which focuses on shared interests, challenges and values.

UK-Caribbean Relations in a Time of Brexit-induced Change

As an episode of diplomacy between long-standing partners, the Tenth Ministerial Forum stands out as it came just two days after the release of the ‘Integrated Review 2021’ titled Global Britain in a competitive age (hereafter Global Britain). The timing of the release of Global Britain has not gone down well in some quarters, where it is felt the Caribbean side did not have sufficient time to factor Global Britain into its preparations for and negotiations of the Tenth Ministerial Forum’s outcome documents. Others have downplayed such concerns, contending that the timing of the Review’s release did not have any significant impact on the proceedings because UK authorities would already have “telegraphed” positions prior to the Tenth Ministerial Forum. The jointly agreed Forum agenda, a source familiar with the talks suggests, might also have given an indication.

The Ministerial Forum in question ended with a comprehensive agreement on how to move forward on this partnership, asserting fresh impetus. It charted an ambitious roadmap for UK-Caribbean relations, which London- and field-based FCDO and other UK government representatives will work to advance in concert with Caribbean regional and national focal points, along with British territories’ points of contact.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to take a toll on the wider Caribbean region, the UK’s support of the COVAX initiative is in the spotlight. In addition, Caribbean representatives hailed Britain’s recent multi-million pound contribution to the Caribbean Development Bank’s Special Development Fund. At a time when so many of the world’s most powerful states and biggest economies are hedging on COVID-19-related multilateralism, the British government’s immediate and tangible support in this area is laudable.

As for Global Britain, it focuses on the UK’s global affairs, asserting sovereignty and prestige. In the overall scheme of things, Global Britain offers insights into the UK’s approach to the Caribbean. In recognition of the heterogeneity of nations comprising the Caribbean regional construct per the UK-Caribbean relations frame, as well as national interests, it has been suggested that Global Britain compels reflection on how they “should in future relate to a changing Britain and where their own interests lie”. The issue here is foreign policy-related (re-)alignments, focusing on a range of concerns and opportunities. Another consideration is the increasingly insecure position of the UK Caribbean territories post-Brexit, especially as most of them are associate members of CARICOM.

Caribbean jurisdictions’ domestic political conditions, systems and constraints, all of which inform foreign policy postures, are a largely untold story of UK-Caribbean relations.

Both the Ministerial Forum and Global Britain, which are analysed each to the other, signal London’s strong support for the Caribbean. In their own way, they pave the way for future UK-Caribbean relations. Conceivably, the vision of Global Britain will heavily influence those relations.

Towards Global Britain

As the many twists and turns of the now completed Brexit process unfolded, receiving ever more prominence and attention, over four years on, Whitehall and Downing Street are eager to shift the narrative. Partly because Brexit-related dust ups undercut perceptions of the UK’s international standing, outlining the concept of Global Britain becomes all the more important.

Global Britain covers a 10-year time horizon, outlining national security and international policy objectives to 2025. It provides a window into the government’s thinking more broadly about the UK’s role in the world, coming against a backdrop where EU foreign policy and UK foreign policy have comingled on the heels of innovations introduced under the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty of Lisbon. Global Britain serves as both a substantive and symbolic marker, ushering in a new era in Britain’s foreign policy.

It weaves a narrative about the UK’s role in the world, building on the following standpoint: Great Britain has a “global perspective and global responsibilities”. Yet, in putting 65 years of British history up until Brexit under an analytical microscope, others are not sanguine about Britain’s global role.

The UK’s ‘global’ role aspirations are, however, not new. When it was a member of the EU fold, Britain’s foreign policy was status-driven. Serving as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council lends to Britain’s status in the global system, which has special significance for some international relations scholars. Some analysts contend that notwithstanding the notion of sovereign equality that informs EU foreign policy, as a then bigger member state of the Union, the UK exercised informal leadership in developing said policy. Scholars maintain that in deference to its “rank in the world”, the UK has traditionally prioritized its national foreign policy. In the post-Brexit dispensation, this endeavour will be so much more so untethered from EU foreign policy moorings.    

As a practical matter, now that the UK has fully exited the EU, there is heightened interest in foreign policy circles as regards this top-tier middle power’s (re-)positioning in and continued contribution to the liberal international order. Global Britain pronounces on the UK’s vision for and approach to shaping and extending an open international order, underlining its Indo-Pacific “tilt” over attention to the increasingly complex security environment. It also acknowledges the role of the Commonwealth, among other institutions, in supporting that order. As for a discernible role for the Caribbean, a Caribbean and international affairs analyst is not too enthused by what she maintains is missing from the document. Another CARICOM insider assesses the document differently, underscoring that “[it] says the right things, but can the UK deliver?” Still others suggest Defence in a Competitive Age, the Ministry of Defence’s contribution in respect of Global Britain, elaborates on elements of UK-Caribbean cooperation.  

Billed as the most comprehensive review of its kind since the Cold War, Global Britain may have been propelled by a sui generis set of circumstances but it is not unlike a landmark EU planning exercise in the 2010s “that laid out a vision for Europe’s place in the world”. In this regard, EU leaders pronounced on how the bloc intends to cope with, adapt to and prioritize in the foreign and security policy arena.

The then High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy was keen to move past a traditional view of the EU as a civilian power, although normative power as a conceptual referent also now drives scholarly understanding of the Union’s role in international politics. The Global Strategy or the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS), which the European Council tasked the High Representative to prepare, pinpoints five priorities for EU foreign policy and it places European foreign and security policy on a new footing. Some scholars view the EUGS’s orientation critically, against a backdrop where EU foreign policy itself has come in for criticism

The EUGS and Global Britain underline and share a concern with macro-level dynamics in the states-system in the early 21st century, providing accounts of respective postures. That said, how does CARICOM fit within and benefit from the Global Britain framework?

Global Britain and CARICOM

Partnerships

For CARICOM foreign policy circles, Global Britain is hugely important to the region. Interest lies principally in pronouncements in the area of partnerships, which also undergird the EUGS. Informed by ideas pertaining to shared values and interests, the Global Strategy calls attention to the Union’s commitment to building “stronger partnerships” with the Caribbean. This chimes well with Global Britain, which signals the UK’s continued commitment to developing “a strong set of partnerships” with Latin America and the Caribbean, spanning a range of areas that inform UK-Caribbean relations; such as, trade and inclusive-cum-resilient growth. Partnerships are a lifeline, given the power asymmetries between large and small states.

As small states, CARICOM members’ continuing quest to amplify their influence on the international stage hinges on bilateral and multilateral partnerships, which also afford access to a variety of resources. While there is much in Global Britain to pique CARICOM’s interest, given its primarily small island states’ “high vulnerability and low adaptive capacity to climate change”, as well as their associated special development circumstances, a couple of partnership-themed indications should be of special interest. First, the UK intends to harness its presidency of COP26 in 2021 and its International Climate Finance commitment of £11.6 billion to build global climate resilience. Second, the UK has affirmed its commitment to a resilient ocean at a time when it has been determined that climate change poses a threat to our oceans.

Resilience

While the UK government’s commitment to these kinds of issues, as expressed in Global Britain, is not new, the prominence given to resilience is. Resilience also frames the EUGS, influencing the conduct of EU external action. In Global Britain, ‘resilience’ appears over 80 times. In this regard, there is a stated commitment to building global climate resilience. In the context of building resilience overseas, the UK government’s stated goal of tackling climate change and biodiversity loss is especially germane to CARICOM Member States.

In the UK-Caribbean setting, there already is a carryover in this thinking. Consider that the Tenth Ministerial Forum Communiqué draws attention to scope for UK-Caribbean collaboration in the context of COP26, which the UK will host in November 2021. Such collaboration, according to the Communiqué, holds the promise of “further demonstrat[ing] their leadership on ambitious climate action, including through enhanced and updated Nationally Determined Contributions and Long-Term Strategies with pathways to net zero and Adaptation Communications”.

Among the discourses most closely associated with CARICOM is building resilience, a steady tradition in salient policy and scholarly work that partly links to climate change impacts. According to some estimates, the Caribbean shoulders a staggering $3 billion annual bill for environmental disaster-related losses/damages and the effects of climate change. Caribbean policymakers contend that on account of the adverse effects of “climate variability and sea level rise”, CARICOM members are saddled “with the negative impact estimated to range from 5% to as high as 30% of GDP”. There is a “complex relationship between SIDS [in general] and climate change”, which has emerged as “the defining feature of the Caribbean developmental landscape”. Constituting a new setback for such states, which are advancing debate on the CARICOM Economic Recovery and Transformation (CERT) Programme, the COVID-19 crisis “underscores [their] climate vulnerability”. This is an existential (security) issue for the region.

Against this backdrop, it is commendable that, according to the Tenth Ministerial Forum Communiqué, “Ministers agreed to work together to address the challenges faced by Caribbean countries in accessing finance to respond to natural disasters, both for short-term recovery and longer-term resilience building”. Notably, “[t]his includes looking at opportunities for greater disaster risk and insurance provision, and improved access to climate adaptation financing”.

In the area of climate change, the Tenth Ministerial Forum Action Plan points to follow on steps. Regarding other areas of cooperation, the Action Plan highlights requisite follow-up. This is the case with trade and commercial relations, taking into account the advent of the CARIFORUM-UK Economic Partnership Agreement (CARIFORUM-UK EPA). The UK is a key trading partner of the wider regional grouping of Caribbean states and, according to expert analysis, the UK market is especially important for Jamaica.

The CARIFORUM-UK EPA is seen as “maintain[ing] current market access to the UK following [the UK’s] withdrawal from the EU” and “deliver[ing] continuity” with regard to the UK’s trade relationship with CARIFORUM States, previously conducted under the aegis of the CARIFORUM-EU EPA. In this regard, the Action Plan points to joint institutions. They are envisaged under the CARIFORUM-UK EPA, and indications are that they will be set up and begin to meet for the first time later in 2021. The expectation is that these pending engagements will sign-off on a roadmap for the Agreement, which has attracted considerable attention within the CARICOM, as well as the Caribbean Forum (CARIFORUM), regional configuration. It is an essential pillar of contemporary UK-Caribbean relations, which the two sides are eager to develop further. Still, aspects of Brexit-related dynamics have engendered new trading complexity for Caribbean goods. Since Brexit has not yet resolved many UK shipping-related issues vis-à-vis the EU, logistical issues have arisen for some Caribbean economic operators. Most Caribbean goods to the EU are shipped through the UK, and there are contentious and tiresome customs issues now and great delays. As a result, Caribbean exporters to the EU are being advised to find alternative shipping and storage routes.

The Road Ahead

The Tenth Ministerial Forum, along with Global Britain, has given new impetus to UK-Caribbean relations. As it should, and as its Communiqué and Action Plan attest, this Ministerial Forum zoomed in on a number of areas with regard to further cooperation. While Global Britain “give[s] a clearer sense of the UK’s ambitions and priorities”, by its own admission, “detailed regional and country strategies or an exhaustive description of all the activity” are not provided. This reflects in-built flexibility and the recognition that provision has to be made for further policy work and new sub‑strategies, which have a bearing on the further development of UK-Caribbean relations. Caribbean officialdom will now work toward an assessment of Global Britain and post-mortem analyses of the Tenth Ministerial Forum, charting a way forward for working-level meetings and associated deliverables.      


Dr. Nand C. Bardouille heads the Diplomatic Academy of the Caribbean in the Institute of International Relations (IIR), The University of the West Indies (The UWI) – St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago. Dr. Bardouille’s teaching and research focus is on International Relations and Comparative Politics, with a regional focus on the Caribbean. He specializes in and has published on the diplomacy, foreign policy, and international economic relations of small states. Learn more about the SRC at www.shridathramphalcentre.com.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Professor Jessica Byron, Ambassador Patrick I. Gomes, Ambassador Colin Granderson and Ambassador Errol Humphrey for their insightful comments on earlier drafts. The usual disclaimer applies for any remaining errors and omissions.

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