Columns, Opinion

Worldview: Brexit’s profound effect on Britain’s overseas possessions

In the aftermath of the shocking vote in Britain to leave the European Union in 2016, one of the foremost concerns had to do with the fate of the United Kingdom: would the vote to leave the EU, supported nearly exclusively by the English, lead Scotland or Northern Ireland to secede in order to regain EU membership? As Brexit talks draw on in Brussels, these questions remain very much unanswered. Yet, often forgotten or ignored when discussing Brexit’s eventual effect on Britain is the question of the fate of the rest of the “empire” outside of Britain: the British Overseas Territories.

While a far cry from the Victorian Empire of the previous century, the United Kingdom still maintains possession over a collection of islands (plus Gibraltar in Iberia and some territory in Cyprus) in the Caribbean as well as in the Pacific, Atlantic and Southern Oceans. Deemed either too small to warrant gaining independence or too strategically important for Britain to give up, these remnants of the Empire are going to be impacted tremendously by Brexit.

The two most heavily contested overseas territories, the Falklands and Gibraltar, have become centers of international attention once more while Britain attempts to finagle itself out of the EU. Gibraltar, given its status as Britain’s sole territory on the European continent, was the only one of Britain’s overseas possessions allowed to vote on Brexit in 2016. Due to the high level of traffic between Gibraltar and EU-member Spain, it is hardly surprising that the Llanitos voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, with 96 percent of voters electing to remain in the EU.

Gibraltar’s awkward situation has caused Madrid, in the past couple of years since the fateful Brexit vote, to revamp its claim to the Rock which was Spanish territory before it was granted to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. While Gibraltar has consistently demonstrated its desire to remain a British territory, Spain has persevered regardless, capitalizing on Britain’s vulnerable position as it attempts to negotiate itself out of the EU.

The Falklands, an archipelago of the coast of Cape Horn, are the sight of similar territorial quarrels, in this case with Argentina pressing its claim over the islands. Infamously, Argentina fought a war with Britain in 1982 over the islands, but Argentina’s defeat in that conflict has not quelled Buenos Aires’ desire to obtain Las Malvinas, as they call the islands. The United Kingdom’s position within the EU provided it with a plethora of supporters in the past, as all EU members are obliged to support one another in territorial disputes with another party due to the “Duty of Sincere Cooperation” principle. With Britain’s impending exit from the EU, however, and its subsequent antagonization of its former EU-partners, Buenos Aires has taken up a more aggressive policy designed to wrest the Falklands away from Britain.

Jorge Faurie, Argentina’s foreign minister, expressed this position bluntly in an interview with the Telegraph. Faurie stated that his government’s intention for the Falklands is “to have a negotiation that will enable stronger relations between the people on the islands and the people on the mainland” and that a “no-deal Brexit solution will enhance the possibility of that dialogue to be truly one with results.”

Elsewhere in Britain’s overseas possessions, there are concerns about Brexit — not stemming from territorial disputes but regarding the potential consequences that the elimination of EU funding will have. The majority of Britain’s 14 overseas possessions are dependent at least in part on EU funding and aid programs. The proposition of leaving the EU therefore is daunting for the people living in these territories.

Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands are three Caribbean possessions still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irma. The prospect of losing EU aid is therefore immensely distressing, especially given the fact that the people were not given a vote on the issue back in 2016.

The loss of EU funding would have a profound effect on all the residents of Britain’s overseas possessions, including the non-human ones. About a third of the conservation funding for these territories comes from the EU, dedicated toward preserving the habitats of an estimated 1,500 unique species native to these various territories. Charlie Butt, the Caribbean territories program manager at the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, noted that “the loss of a third of funding would be catastrophic from a conservation perspective,” in an interview with The Independent.

Brussels’ stringent attitude toward Brexit negotiation and Britain’s unwillingness to compromise has made the entire affair a headache for Europe, and the residual effects could have lasting consequences for Britain’s loyal, yet oftentimes forgotten overseas possessions. The failure to consider these peoples’ opinions on Brexit has created tensions that have yet to be assuaged. Should Britain be unable to secure a favorable Brexit deal with the EU, the United Kingdom may find itself increasingly divided both at home and overseas.

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