From Belize in the north to Trinidad and Tobago in the south, and the array of beautiful island nations between, Caribbean people share a crucial characteristic which has shaped the Caribbean identity existing today – a tumultuous history of slavery and indentureship. African slavery and European colonisation in the Caribbean are inseparable; it was the basis upon which our societies were developed. For centuries, human beings were imported in mass quantities, untold millions, across the Atlantic Ocean and made to work under inhumane conditions. For the English-speaking Caribbean, this reality entwined our countries with the economies and societies of the colonial master – Britain. These ties, although ostensibly cut, still hold a very real noose around the Caribbean economy today; understanding this idea is key to understanding the effects of Britain’s exit (Brexit) from the European Union (EU) on the Caribbean.
It brings to question whether Caribbean nations are truly free from colonisation or have fallen prey to neo-colonialism. According to the Caribbean Dependency Theory, an economic and socio-political review raises the belief that ‘freedom’ and ‘emancipation’ have been an illusion proliferated by the powerful metropolis in order to maintain domination instigated by colonisers. It suggests that even today the decisions of the neo-colonisers have major trickledown effects, depicting how the aforementioned ties still define and control the Caribbean reality. This leaves Caribbean economies highly vulnerable and ensnared in a cycle of debt and dependency.
Many aspects of Caribbean life will be impacted by Brexit; from trade and remittances, to immigration, tourism, culture, finance, and foreign policy. This is a time for re-examination and amendments to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)-UK (United Kingdom) relations. As the very silhouette of British politics changes, the Caribbean’s fragile economic system is threatened. But how?
Most significantly, trade and tourism will see major impacts.
As Britain removes its hands from the table, it is also removing a major bargaining chip for Caribbean countries. According to Professor W. Andy Knight, professor of International Relations at the University of Alberta, Canada, and former Director of the Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, “Caribbean countries should not expect special deals or preferences from the EU if Britain is not there to argue on their behalf.” Indeed, we can expect corrosion of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between CARIFORUM (CARICOM and the Dominican Republic) and the EU. The EPA is more than a trade agreement; its scope is wide, embracing development issues such as non-tariff measures, customs and trade facilitation, technical barriers to trade, investment in services and e-commerce, public procurement, innovation and intellectual property, and the environment. The EPA was meant to set up a preferential scope for future trade, economic, social, and environmental policies of CARICOM countries. However, Brexit could pose a threat to the achievements of its objectives.
Caribbean people are not tied to Britain only through history. Even today, over 500,000 people in Britain identify as being of Caribbean origin, with the majority coming from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados. There is a degree of belonging and a sense of home that Caribbean people feel with regard to Britain due to almost everyone having a family member or knowing someone who has family in Britain. Generally, Caribbean people are not as tied to other European countries as they are to Britain, the country which played an influential role in CARICOM joining the EPA in the first instance. For this reason, Caribbean countries could be left out in the cold due to Brexit.
Upon entering the EU in 1973, Britain gave all authority for its trade agreements to the European Economic Community. Now, as it leaves, Caribbean countries will no longer have framed trade relations with Britain, losing a market of over 64 million people. This is a pivotal point for Caribbean leaders, as the majority of their exports to the EU has been going to the British market. Particularly, it must be noted that the EU-CARIFORUM EPA is vital to the development of the Caribbean region, as it is the only fully-comprehensive agreement that CARICOM has with any other country or region in the world.
Furthermore, Britain was the second largest economy of the EU, contributing greatly to official aid and investments. Without Britain at the table, it is likely that aid to the Caribbean will decline, directly affecting development during financially uncertain times. The other 27 countries have absolutely no historical relationship or sense of colonial responsibility for the English-Speaking Caribbean. The future is therefore quite uncertain.
With regard to services, the Caribbean tourism industry will take a heavy blow. As a region, the Caribbean relies heavily on tourism as a major source of income. The direct contribution of Travel & Tourism to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2014 was US $16.1bn (4.5% of regional GDP). In 2015, Jamaica saw a record number of UK visitors (201,364, a 12.2% increase from 2014) and regionally there was about 1.5 million UK visitors. British tourists constitute a substantial number of the annual visitors to the region, making significant investments in vacation properties. These figures will plunge for in the near future.
Financially, Brexit lead to almost immediate devaluation of the pound. On June 22nd 2016 the US$1 was worth 0.7314 pounds and by June 25th 2016, US $1 was worth 0.8994 pounds. This translates into a hike in the cost of vacations to the Caribbean for British nationals. Overtime, Caribbean arrivals will fall and the developing economies stand to lose billions of dollars. The decline of the pound has the power to bring the Caribbean tourism industry and the economies at large sliding down with it.
The EU is CARIFORUM’s second-largest trading partner after the United States. Trade between the regions is estimated at about $1.1 trillion (€8 billion). Although the EU issued a statement that it “is, and will continue to be, a strong actor and a reliable partner to our friends all around the world,” Caribbean leaders seem doubtful. In a release, Jamaican Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Kamina Johnson Smith stated that Brexit “will have significant implications for Jamaica-UK relations and possibly for Jamaica-EU relations.”
Prime Minister of Dominica, Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit stated that “the decision to leave the EU is going to have major impacts on developing economies like ours which rely heavily on development assistance from the EU. The priorities and focus of the EU are going to change.”
Where does this leave the Caribbean?
The future of the Caribbean-EU relationship is in doubt and new approaches and alignments will be made. CARICOM may need to be proactive and rapidly conduct a wholesale review of its relationship with the UK and the member states of the EU.
The British took Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and managed to conquer Bermuda in 1609 and Barbados in 1625. The plantation system, with enslaved African labour at its core, was crucial to the commercial activity of Britain during this time, contributing to the development of their economy. From then to now, the English-speaking Caribbean has remained dependent on Britain. Will the dynamics of this dependency be altered moving forward?