By David Jessop
Two weeks ago four British ministers including William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, plus a large number of senior officials and representatives of UK companies met with Caribbean Foreign Ministers, officials and others in Grenada. The event, the much delayed biennial UK Caribbean Forum, sought to reset Britain’s agenda with the region.
Opening the meeting, Mr Hague, made very clear that the UK wanted to invest in the relationship. “We want to build a new partnership between Britain and the Caribbean that creates opportunities on all sides – in development, climate change, the economy, security and foreign policy,” he said.
As such the event marked a defining moment in the UK’s long relationship with the region as it represented a significant move away from the past and an end to any lingering assumptions.
Unusually, the outcome of the forum was not conveyed in a communiqué of the opaque style favoured in the past, but in the form of a detailed action plan setting out what was agreed, identifying future areas for joint activity.
This document makes clear that a consensus emerged on new forms of functional co-operation particularly in relation to security, climate change, trade, investment, and support for the private sector. However, less certain was whether there was a meeting of minds on the issues of economic reform and modernisation, or the extent to which new initiatives might be considered in this area by Caribbean Governments.
As was to be expected, the divisive issue of Air Passenger Duty (APD) was discussed. In the end a statement was agreed. According to the action plan, the UK and the Caribbean will continue their dialogue on issues relating to the APD, in the context of the importance of tourism to the economic development of the Caribbean, ‘with a view to assisting the region in mitigating any deleterious effects that the application of the APD may have on its economies’.
The Caribbean has taken some comfort from this but what it means practically is that much more needs to be done in terms of lobbying and having not just those responsible for the UK relationship with the Caribbean understand why this is such an important issue, but more importantly convincing the Chancellor of the Exchequer and those who determine Britain’s fiscal policy.
A number of other specific difficulties were identifiedat both a bilateral and multilateral level from issues relating to business visas, to future EU policy and how the region relates to the G20.
The event was different too in its symbolism. Notably after a private dinner at which the UK Foreign Secretary was able to speak informally with Caribbean Ministers, the first formal event was with the private sector. At this encounter, Caribbean and UK business representatives were encouraged to indicate the changes they hoped for in the business environment, a theme later pursued by the Chief Executive of UK Trade and Industry; and to demonstrate UK support for the region its reception was held on one of its naval vessels that supports regional security
In this respect the action plan has extensive language on the levels of security co-operation that the UK and Caribbean will now develop with others including the US. There was a consensus on a wide range of practical measures. This reflected both the region’s deep concern about deteriorating levels of security and the UK’s view that any failure to join up the response with all interested parties would sooner rather than later result in potentially disastrous consequences for the Caribbean, Europe and North America.
Much the same applied to exchanges on climate change and alternative energy. There was a strong common purpose, albeit with some from the Caribbean seeing this as a new opportunity for financial resource transfer.
A less recognised aspect of the meeting was that it took place on a Cariforum wide basis.
Although convened with Caricom, it included the Dominican Republic as a full participant, and Cuba and the Premiers of the UK Overseas Territories or their representatives as observers. This was intended to send a signal that while Britain’s traditional ties remain strongly with the Commonwealth Caribbean it sees the region as one and increasingly, would welcome any moves that might deepen Cariforum’s dialogue and relationships with all Hispanic neighbours.
In this context one of only three bilateral meetings the UK Foreign Secretary held was with the Foreign Minister of the Dominican Republic whose positive words on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) contrasted with those of most Caricom Ministers: the other meetings were with the Prime Minister of the host nation and with the newly appointed Foreign Minister of Jamaica.
So positive was this meeting that there is a possibility, as has happened with Cuba, albeit in a very different context, that the UK and the Dominican Republic Government may soon develop language that will lead to a wide ranging bilateral agreement; a matter already trailed in the Dominican media. At the same time the Dominican private sector, which was represented at the Forum, in an almost immediate follow-up, is to send a delegation to London in March to discuss improving investment and trade ties.
To put all this in context what still needs to be more widely understood in the Caribbean is that the UK’s approach to the region is now based on pragmatism and an overriding desire to see the region develop and have a strong, prosperous, secure and independent future. Many of the Ministers and officials dealing with the region are relatively young, have minds uncluttered by the past and are by nature oriented to finding policy solutions to commonly recognised problems.
As is made clear in the action plan, commitments were made on both sides, significant sums were offered in development assistance, new mechanisms proposed to develop private sector relationships that support small and medium sized industries, and a range of other approaches agreed that will help foster growth.
This year Trinidad and Jamaica will celebrate 50 years of independence. Over that time the region has moved on, has diversified its relationships and, in the case of the larger Caribbean Islands, sought with some care to rebalance relations through closer ties to emerging powers. The UK’s approach in Grenada was to recognise this and to indicate the broad future role it was willing to play in partnership with the region.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org