Is Brexit a risk for the Caribbean?

Alicia Nicholls

In a few weeks’ time, June 23rd to be exact, the British people will vote in a referendum to determine the future of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s 40-plus year formal relationship with continental Europe. The possibility of a UK vote for an EU exit, poignantly termed “Brexit” in popular parlance, was identified by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its recently released World Economic Outlook Update Report as a major risk to the global economy.

The fear of a negative impact of Brexit on the UK and global economy has been echoed off the walls of practically every major economic and political forum within the last few months, with the recently concluded IMF/World Bank Group Spring Meetings  being the latest example.

Though the US, Canada, and in some respects China, have surpassed the UK’s economic importance to the Caribbean region as a destination for Caribbean exports and as a source of foreign direct investment (FDI), the UK remains an important source market for tourist arrivals.  It is also the region’s closest ally in the EU and a partner in helping to ensure the region’s concerns are raised and considered. Therefore, there are possible economic and foreign policy implications for the Caribbean if the UK severs its ties with the EU.

Background

The UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor to the EU, in 1973 but has never joined the eurozone, opting instead to retain the Pound Sterling as its currency and set its own monetary policy. While it is outside the scope of this article to delve into the merits and demerits of either position or to render an opinion on such, those who support the “Vote Leave” cite immigration from poorer EU countries and the perceived impact on UK social services, as well as the loss of British sovereignty as the EU looks to create an “ever closer union”. They see the costs of EU membership (both financial and figurative) outweighing the benefits and point to Switzerland and Norway as examples of European countries successfully striving outside of the EU.

Those in favour of the “Stay vote” highlight the EU as a final destination for nearly half of all British exports and the hypothetical havoc that would be inflicted on the UK economy should the UK cease to be a member of the single market.According to data published by the UK Office of National Statistics, the EU in 2014 accounted for 44.6% of UK exports of goods and services, and 53.2% of UK imports of goods and services.

While Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) provides for withdrawal from the EU by any member state, the current UK situation is untested waters. In 1975 British voters opted to remain in the EEC. Although Greenland left the EEC in 1985 following a referendum, no state has ever left the EU.  Therefore, there is uncertainty about the impact of a potential Brexit on the EU and the global economy considering that the UK is the EU’s 2nd largest member by GDP and 3rd largest by population.

 A “leave” vote will not automatically mean the UK is out of the EU and there is a process to be followed which Article 50 of the TEU outlines once the UK notifies its intention to withdraw pursuant to Article 50(2). This includes negotiation and conclusion of a withdrawal agreement in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Unless the European Council and the UK decide an extension, EU treaties would cease to be applicable to the UK once the withdrawal agreement enters into force or, failing that, two years after the UK has notified its intention to leave.

Caribbean Implications – Trade, Tourism & Investment

The UK still ranks as a major partner for many Caribbean countries’ exports and imports. For commodities-exporting economies like Guyana, Belize, Suriname, the UK is within their top 5 export markets.

The UK is more importantly a main source of tourist arrivals for many Caribbean countries. Some 1.1 million UK tourists visited the Caribbean in 2015, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s State of the Industry Report in February this year. For those tourism-dependent countries in the Caribbean for which the UK is the major source market, their economic fortunes are tied to the health of the UK economy and strength of Sterling. This was clearly illustrated by the slowdown many tourism-dependent economies in the region suffered while the US and UK economies were in recession during the global economic and financial crisis and during the height of the Air Passenger Duty (APD) saga when British demand for travel to the region fell..

Studies on the impact of Brexit on the UK economy are inconclusive and range the gamut from positive to disastrous. However, the IMF position is clear as seen in its most recent WEO Update Report where it cut its growth projections for the UK from 2.2% to 1.9% in 2016, representing a projected slowdown from the  2.3% growth the UK economy realised in 2015.

In Barbados, British nationals are also an important source of real estate FDI. It was recently reported by local real estate agents in a news broadcast that the softening  in the  value of the Great Britain Pound has dampened demand for Barbadian luxury real estate by British second home buyers and affected the tenuous recovery the island’s second home market was experiencing.

Trade Agreements

There is some disagreement among academics as to the continuity of the UK’s participation in treaties which it signed as part of the EU with third states. These include the Economic Partnership Agreement signed with CARIFORUM states, which is considered a “mixed” treaty under EU law, that is, a treaty under which both the EU and its member states exercised competencies and thus  is concluded by both the EU and its member states. Some posit that the UK can avail itself of the principle of continuity of treaties, which is more likely in a “mixed” treaty than an “exclusive” scenario where the EU has exclusive competence.

However, the principle of continuity actually applies in the context of state continuity and succession and there is no precedent of a scenario like this where a state ceased to be a member of a trading bloc in which capacity it had concluded a treaty. Even if the continuity principle applies, the UK would have to enter into some kind of negotiations with these states if it is to continue to benefit from treaties it signed as part of the EU which still means there will be uncertainty for CARIFORUM exporters and investors. In the worst case scenario, CARICOM or CARIFORUM would have to negotiate a separate agreement with the UK to maintain the level of preferences to the UK market to what they have with the EU under the EPA. As the EU treaties and directives would no longer apply to the UK after the date of entry of the withdrawal agreement, the UK would have the regulatory freedom to set its own standards, such as technical standards and sanitary and phytosanitary standards, which may or may not be as onerous as the EU’s.

Foreign Policy Implications

The UK is most Commonwealth Caribbean countries’ closest ally in Brussels. A British exit would mean the UK no longer has the power to directly influence EU policy and the Caribbean region would lose an important voice to raise and articulate its concerns in regards to the future of EU foreign policy. It is particularly critical now as the EU is contemplating its position on the future framework for cooperation with the countries of the African, Caribbean & Pacific (ACP) Group once the Cotonou Partnership Agreement expires in 2020.

The situation becomes more complicated for UK dependencies in the Caribbean which are not officially a part of the EU but benefit from EU funding and preferences because of their relationship with their mother country, the United Kingdom. A “yes vote” would raise questions about what future relationship they have with the EU.

According to this news report, a  poll by YouGov released on Friday “found support for “In” stood at 40 percent, while 39 percent intended to vote “Out”, 16 percent were undecided and 5 percent did not intend to vote”. Similar to the Scottish independence referendum where polls were close and ultimately the status quo prevailed, my personal view is that despite the growing anti-EU sentiment in the UK, the British people will not vote to leave the EU. Besides the uncertainty a Brexit would portend for the British economy and business, Prime Minister David Cameron was able to secure several sweeping changes from Brussels after two days of negotiations in February and which would go into effect if the “stay vote” wins. 

However, in the event that the “out vote” prevails, it is likely that the UK will negotiate some kind of preferential arrangement, similar to what obtains between the EU and Turkey, given the strong trade and investment ties to the continent. This would ensure UK businesses and exporters are not disadvantaged and still have favourable access to the EU single market once the transition period ends.

The Bottom Line

Brexit would be a risk to Caribbean economies. The nature of the risk would depend on several factors, including the type of withdrawal arrangement the UK negotiates with the EU and the impact on the British economy during the period of transition.

The uncertainty in the UK economy during the post-exit phase could have strong implications for countries like Barbados whose economic fortunes are closely tied to the strength of the UK economy, something which we are already seeing happening to some extent as uncertainty among investors has led to the weakening of Sterling in recent months.  Furthermore, the UK’s exit from the EU would mean uncertainty for Caribbean exporters in the UK market and the loss of the region’s closest ally within the trade bloc at a time when the EU is reconsidering its foreign policy and its post-Cotonou cooperative framework with ACP countries. As such, the Region must brace itself for whatever happens on June 23rd.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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