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French-Caribbean reject more autonomy, Brits demand respect

Published:Sunday | January 17, 2010 | 12:00 AM

David Jessop

On January 10, two of France's Caribbean département d'outremer (DOM), Martinique and Guyane, rejected the possibility of greater autonomy.

They did so by a substantial majority in a 69.8 per cent no vote in Guyane, and 78.9 per cent no vote in Martinique, and in an unusually high turnout of voters - 55 per cent.

The rejection was unexpected, coming as it did after a year in which strikes and huge street protests had taken place, but reflected what might be best described as a latent realism on the part of voters about the DOM's and perhaps the Caribbean's economic place in the world.

Although views differ, there appear to be three reasons why voters decided to reject an option which could have led to independence.

There was a concern among citizens that a yes vote would endorse an approach that was organic and lead to unspecified change; a sense among many voters that they did not trust local politicians and were not prepared to give them greater freedom of action; and concern about the possible destabilising effects of any change in the high levels of economic and social support provided by the French govern-ment and the European Union for citizens and enterprises in what are legally, 'remote' parts of Europe.

The vote was a severe disappoint-ment to activists in the French DOM who had seen the referendum as offering a step towards independence as, once the result was known, the French government made it clear that it saw the outcome as affirming that the two DOMs wished to remain a part of France and that the real long-term focus should now be on economic development.

The result came shortly after two other developments with broader regional implications had taken place: the initialling of a treaty of economic union between the nations of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), and concern among the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) in the Caribbean about the nature of their relationship with London.

deeper subregional integration

In the case of the OECS, its governments agreed at the end of December to deepen subregional integration.

They did so by initialling a treaty that commits Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent, St Kitts and Nevis and three BOTs, Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands, to achieve by June of this year an economic union with a legally binding governance structure.

More significantly still, the decision would seem to mark a first step towards making the wider regional integration process more viable as the OECS is already committed to achieving economic union with Trinidad by 2013.

By first bringing together a potentially viable subregional grouping among nations at similar levels of development with a common self-interest, the sub-region may be constructing the foundations for an alternative future approach to regional economic integration.

A further change is likely to be an evolution in the relationship between Britain and its Caribbean territories.

Around their annual meeting in London in early December, what emerged very clearly was a feeling that the concerns of the Caribbean territories needed to be addressed separately from those of their distant colleagues in the South Atlantic and elsewhere.

At that time, Caribbean premiers and chief ministers from all BOTs set out a list of concerns to UK ministers and officials. Primary among these was a sense that although the fundamental relationship remained strong, the spirit of partnership was lacking.

They cited a number of examples, including the lack of constitutional and personal respect shown to them as elected representatives when Britain dealt with issues directly affecting their nations' interests, such as requests for borrowings, the absence of consultations between some governors and elected governments, and the manner in which the constitution of The Turks and Caicos Islands had been suspended without any recognition of shared responsibilities or common law.

Premiers made it clear that they were also concerned by the actions of British politicians who had been sniping at overseas territories on issues of governance or encouraging negative media coverage of their role as international financial centres.

They suggested that UK politicians in pursuit of domestic political advantage were damaging their economic success and the positive brand that many BOTs had built up.

Other concerns centred on the downgrading of British ministerial responsibility, the lack of structured dialogue, the low priority afforded to the territories' interests by Britain's represen-tatives in Brussels, and the non-delivery of promises made on a wide range of issues.

For its part, the UK appears to have accepted that the idea of partnership as envisaged a decade ago has not yet been realised, that there is a need to deal better within the diversity of BOTs and provide a place for more consultation and communication.

But how this will be put into practice is far from clear.

In London, premiers made clear in private that what they wanted at this time was not a process leading to independence but a mature partnership that requires Britain to accept a relationship that is more equitable.

To this end, they hope that sometime after the UK general election, the UK will publish a green paper, rather than taking what one described as the traditional 'colonial approach' of publishing a white paper without consulting on the views of this islands concerned.

These are of course all disparate developments. However, they give hope.

They point to positive and democratic approach to change in a region that at time seems to be either stagnating, failing to develop new thinking, or pursuing models that owe more to the post cold war period than the 21st century.

David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. Email: