David Jessop | A better approach to UK-Caribbean relations
There is an old saying that you wait ages for a London bus and then two – or even three – come along at once. It is not an expression, as far as I am aware, that has ever been applied to policy statements affecting United Kingdom-Caribbean relations.
However, in the space of just 14 days, four documents have appeared that will, in one or another way, guide future relations between a stand-alone Britain and the anglophone Caribbean.
The most specific of these is a joint communiqué on the outcome of the 10th UK-Caribbean Forum, held virtually on March 18, and, more importantly, its accompanying action plan. Both documents were agreed by ministers just as Britain was unveiling its long-term post-Brexit security, development, and foreign policy strategy and, separately, explaining how the UK intends responding militarily to changing global threats
Although the latter two documents only touch indirectly on issues affecting the long-term UK-Caribbean relationship, they are of relevance as throughout they address shared concerns, including the changing geopolitical and economic order, climate change, the environment, sustainability, values, and security. Both also reference the overseas territories in ways that imply the UK will remain locked into the region for the foreseeable future.
The defence review, Defence in a Competitive Age, additionally indicates a permanent, if limited, UK naval presence in the Caribbean, a joint approach with allies to counter narcotics interdiction, security, and humanitarian issues; and as the international order changes, greater military emphasis on science and technology-based responses.
The implication is that post-Brexit the anglophone and Hispanic Caribbean relationship with Britain will adapt as the UK’s global preoccupations change.
Helpfully, region-specific, short- to medium-term responses can be found in the two documents summarising the outcome of the UK-Caribbean Forum. Together they propose ways to “maximise the opportunities presented by the post-COVID-19 and post-Brexit realities”.
The forum’s communiqué “acknowledges” the many problems now facing the Caribbean, including the “multidimensional challenge” caused by COVID-19, the region’s concerns about access to vaccines and medical supplies, the need for post-pandemic concessional financing, the challenge of long-term indebtedness, and the consequences of de-risking by international banks. It recognises, too, the region’s vulnerability and the threat posed by climate change.
And, it breaks new ground in two new areas.
The first is in accepting the need to right the disgraceful wrongs suffered by those in the Windrush generation living in the UK. As such, the joint communiqué formally recognises the central importance of the Caribbean diaspora in UK-Caribbean relations.
The second relates to the Caribbean and Britain’s shared security interests, addressing the potentially critical economic, political, and societal role cyberspace now plays in Caribbean life. In this context, the future relationship will involve UK support with threats to cybersecurity, the protection of critical national infrastructure, and the development of the region’s cybersecurity capacity.
The communiqué also publicly commits the Caribbean and the UK to working together ‘to share intelligence, facilitate training, exchange expertise and techniques’ when it comes to tackling ‘threats from terrorism and serious and organised crime’, and to deliver ‘meaningful cooperation’ on common security concerns.
Beyond this, what fundamentally sets this forum apart from the nine others that preceded it, is a detailed two-year action plan running up to the next full meeting in 2023. This separate document commits Caricom and British ministers to a remarkable number of deliverables, enabling civil society to determine the extent to which a real post-Brexit Caribbean partnership exists.
Strikingly, the two-year plan creates what it describes as “realistic commitments”, with a standing agenda for quarterly review between the London-based Caribbean high commissioners and the British minister responsible for relations with the region. Unusually, the document adds that such meetings “will agree joint action in cases where specific objectives are at risk of not being met” and require ”a full audit of achievements” against the plan after the first year and prior to the next forum.
Other commitments made include Britain making the case internationally for the Caribbean to benefit from vaccination roll-out, in part “to restart tourism”; arguing in multilateral fora for Caribbean access to concessional and other soft-loan packages to support post-pandemic recovery; holding a Chiefs of Defence Staff conference in 2021; and supporting the establishment of a Caribbean military academy in Jamaica.
On trade, the ministerial, parliamentary and civil society dialogues envisaged in the Cariforum-UK Economic Partnership Agreement are to develop a trade plan this year; a new UK-Caribbean business-to-business round table will be established; greater use of UK export credits will be encouraged; a UK minister will participate in the EPA Joint Ministerial Council; and trade and investment will be encouraged on a two-way basis, as will services exports.
Cariforum ministers have also signed up to ‘meeting fully’ global standards for tax transparency and anti-corruption measures, and building regional cyber capacity supported by a dedicated UK regional cybersecurity officer based in Jamaica.
There are also other commitments relating to gender equality, climate change, the Windrush compensation scheme, and even to a monument to the Windrush generation.
Much will now depend on ministerial will, and the sustained and genuine commitment of officials on both sides. Quite how this will work is unclear. Caribbean ministers have little ability to ensure their Caricom counterparts deliver the joined-up approaches required, and successive UK governments have had a mixed track record when it comes to retaining the interest of its ministers.
In due course, a better understanding of how the UK will now relate to the Hispanic Caribbean and overseas territories will also be required, as will comparative figures for trade and investment flows as one measure of success. In addition, Caribbean nations will need to decide what future weight they intend placing in areas that overlap with arrangements the region has, or is seeking, with the European Union, the United States, China and others.
Despite this, if the new approach genuinely finds ways that include business, the diaspora, women, and young people, and accountably ‘reinvigorates, redesigns and strengthens’ the Caribbean partnership with Britain, it is to be commended.