Last week while I was climbing the Mayan ruins in the beautiful Central American/Caribbean country of Belize, the British people were casting their vote on one of the most important questions regarding the future of their country’s involvement in the global economy. In response to the simple referendum question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union”, British voters decided that the UK was better off outside of the 28-member bloc. Although I, like many others, expressed doubt that the Leave vote would have been triumphant, the British people by a 52 to 48% margin have decided that leaving the EU is in their best interest.
In a previous article on this matter, I noted the possible ramifications of this then hypothetical outcome for tourism dependent economies like Barbados which are highly reliant on the British market for tourist arrivals and for real estate investment. The current situation is uncharted territory.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, financial markets reacted violently while Sterling lost 10% of its value on currency markets within the days following Brexit, the lowest rate since 1985. Bear in mind that most Caribbean countries’ currencies are pegged to the US dollar and any depreciation of Sterling against the dollar makes the region less price competitive to British travellers. The increased volatility in the value of sterling and any slowdown in the British economy could dampen British demand for travel to the region and or reduce their level of spending during trips. It is a situation which tourism officials across the region have been closely monitoring. Moreover, the political uncertainty as Prime Minister Cameron prepares to demit office in October, the possibility of Scottish demands for another independence referendum, as well as the uncertainty over what impact Brexit will have on the UK economy will result in a wait and see approach by investors, which could impact private British investment in the region.
Against this background of uncertainty and messiness, what we in the Caribbean need to consider is what implication will the UK’s departure from the EU possibly have on our future trade and foreign relations with both the UK and the EU? Of crucial importance will be the possible impact it will have on the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, bearing in mind that once the UK officially is no longer a part of the EU CARIFORUM will no longer have preferential access to the UK market.
The truth is that although the EPA has not yet achieved the potential that it has been hoped to achieve, the EU is second only to the US in terms of its importance as a trading partner for the Caribbean. The main source market in the EU for Caribbean countries is the UK market. Once the UK is no longer part of the EU, Caribbean countries will no longer have preferential access to the UK market for their goods and services. Moreover, market access openings for services trade, particularly under Mode 4 (presence of natural persons) which is currently the most restricted mode, will have to renegotiated as part of any new trading arrangement which the UK decides to establish with Caribbean countries. As the UK sets about negotiating its own trade agreements with major partners, the Caribbean is unlikely to be anywhere near the top of the UK’s list of priorities. All that while, Caribbean exporters will face uncertainty in the UK market.
Prime Minister Cameron has already decided that it will be up to his successor, whomever he or she maybe, to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon which formally commences the UK’s secession from the EU. Until such time as a withdrawal agreement is negotiated and agreed to, or after the lapse of two years after the invocation of Article 50, the UK remains part of the EU and bound by its regulations and rules. However, during this time there will be great uncertainty as to what kind of relationship the UK will negotiate with the EU and what will be the impact of Brexit on the UK economy. British companies, services providers and traders need certainty of access to the EU single market. For this reason, it is clear that at the very least the UK will want an agreement which allows the same level of access to the EU single market. Whether the eventual withdrawal agreement involves the adoption of a Norwegian-like model, a free trade agreement, customs union or simply trade under WTO rules will not be known for some time. The EU leaders have already indicated their unwillingness to engage in any informal talks and the EU Parliament passed a resolution urging the UK to invoke Article 50.
Colonial and historical ties and a shared language have made the UK our main ally in Europe. The UK will no longer be at the EU table once the withdrawal agreement is finalised which means the region will lose a powerful voice and ally in the grouping. This comes at a time when a confluence of important issues with severe development consequences requires the Caribbean to have as many allies in the room as possible. One of these issues is the whole problem of de-risking practices by international banks, a topic on which I spoke in Belize during my stay there last week.
Although it has been primarily US banks which have ended or restricted correspondent banking relations with local banks, some European banks have also done so. Another, and not entirely unrelated issue, is the whole matter of blacklists. One would recall that last year the EU compiled and released a list of all of its countries’ blacklists which included some Caribbean offshore financial centres, despite the fact that all of our countries have been given a clean bill of health by the OECD. Thirdly, the EU is currently in the process of redefining its relationship with the countries of the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group. Fourthly, there are important issues which need to be sorted out in regards to the EPA. One of these is the issue of the octroi de mer (dock dues) which serve as barriers to trade between the Caribbean and French West Indies.
An important issue is the whole matter of the European Development Fund (EDF), the main instrument through which the EU provides development aid to ACP countries and an important source of development funding for Caribbean countries. EU members directly contribute to the EDF based on contribution keys. Germany, France and the UK account for almost half of the contributions under the 11th EDF. This could result in the CARIFORUM countries receiving a smaller share of aid under EDF. On the bright side, the UK is one of the largest bilateral aid donors to the Caribbean and may decide to increase its aid in light of its withdrawal from the EU. However, more “well-off” countries like Barbados, the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago have often been excluded from some of this bilateral aid because of their relatively high GDP per capita, another issue which Caribbean countries have been fighting.
Another impact of Brexit is that it is refocusing the microscope on the future of the Caribbean’s own main integration project, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). There are already rumblings by some for there to be a similar referendum on CARICOM. Any such referendum now would be a bad idea. Recall the referendum which Jamaica did on September 19, 1961 which led it to leave the West Indies Federation. At a time when Caribbean countries are facing a wide range of global challenges, the region needs solidarity and unity now more than ever.
As I had concluded in my previous article, Brexit does have serious implications for future Caribbean-EU and UK trade and foreign relations. The depth and scope of the impact will depend on the length of time of uncertainty, the impact on the UK economy and the kind of trading relationship which the UK eventually negotiates with the EU. However, there are two things that must be emphasised. Firstly, the UK and the Caribbean share strong historical ties which the region should continue to strengthen even more so now that the UK is going solo. I have heard suggestions that the UK may decide to deepen its relationship with the Commonwealth. Secondly, this is an opportunity for the Caribbean to strengthen its ties with the rest of Europe now that the UK will no longer be at the table.
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.