Brexit: Trouble in paradise for Britain's overseas territories?
In 2018, Madrid threatened to veto Britain’s EU withdrawal agreement over the issue of Gibraltar, a British territory since 1793 [File: Thomas Vilhelm/Cover/Getty Images]
London – In 1999, Mike Lupton-Christian from Yorkshire, England – was made redundant and decided to move more than 14,000km away to his wife’s homeland of the Pitcairn islands – a tiny South Pacific outcrop between New Zealand and Chile.
“It was either look for another job in England or emigrate to a tropical paradise,” he told Al Jazeera by phone from the capital Adamstown.
Twenty years later, Lupton-Christian and the other 40 or so residents of Britain’s smallest overseas territory, and one of the world’s remotest inhabited settlements, are wondering how the political upheaval of Brexit in the motherland might affect their futures.
Pitcairn proudly claims to host the world’s healthiest bees, whose niche honey beekeeper Lupton-Christian exports by mail order. He wonders what may happen if Britain detaches itself from the European Union markets and goods become subject to tariffs.
“It seems to be a mystery. The waiting adds to the uncertainty. A third of our honey goes to Europe and it’s a growing industry, so we do have some concerns about Brexit.”
People are surprised that so much could change without our say in it. It might not affect us that much in the end, but we just don’t know.
Mike Lupton-Christian, Adamstown-based British beekeeper
Pitcairn, whose islanders are descendants of HMS Bounty mutineers, is administered by the British Consulate in Auckland nearly 5,000km to the east, from where a ship delivers essential supplies four times a year.
Though primarily supported by the United Kingdom, the island receives around 2.4 million euros from European Development Funds which have contributed to, among other things, the building of a school and a harbour.
Lupton-Christian says nobody has been told if this funding will be replaced post-Brexit.
“People are surprised that so much could change without our say in it. It might not affect us that much in the end, but we just don’t know.”
It’s not only people that have their fate in limbo. The Falkland Islands’ economy is largely based around fish, 89 percent of which is exported to the EU and hence vulnerable to any tariffs imposed on goods after Britain leaves.
The territory also boasts a diverse range of wildlife from circling black albatrosses, basking sei whales and the world’s largest population of gentoo penguins, some of which waddle perilously across landmine-strewn dunes – a relic from the 74-day war with Argentina in 1982.
|In 2013, The Falklands went to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether they wanted to continue under British sovereignty, in response to continued territorial claims of neighbouring Argentina [EPA]|
Speaking from the islands’ capital Stanley, Esther Bertram from Conservation Falklands, a local wildlife protection group, says the birds are the main draw for the 60,000 tourists that visit annually.
“We are distant from Brexit, but the wildlife is one of the things it will affect the most as we get specific funding for it,” she told Al Jazeera.
The EU provides grants from BEST (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Territories overseas) and LIFE (Financial Instrument for the Environment) programmes until the end of the spending period in 2020. Beyond that, Bertram and her colleagues are unsure about where the money will come from.
“It’s a really worrying time. We are so reliant on the natural environment for large-scale developing industries and people’s livelihoods. We struggle to find environmental funding because we are not eligible and the fact that we will be even less open to other EU funds means that we are going to be in trouble.”
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In 2018, the small peninsula of Gibraltar found itself in the eye of the Brexit storm.
A British territory since 1793, neighbouring Spain has a territorial claim and Madrid threatened to veto Britain’s EU withdrawal agreement unless it was given joint sovereignty on its future.
As the only overseas territory to be technically in the EU, Gibraltar was able to vote in the Brexit referendum.
Ninety-six percent chose to remain, many concerned about maintaining ease of access for thousands of workers who cross the Spanish-Gibraltarian border each day.
Alasdair Pinkerton, senior lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway University London, told Al Jazeera that the open frontier is key to the territory’s survival.
“Any closure to the border would fundamentally affect the Gibraltar economy as personnel would not be able to get to work and food would not get to the supermarkets,” he said.
Over 6,000km away, the Caribbean island of Anguilla is nestled in one of the furthest orbits of the EU.
Its closest neighbour Saint Martin is split between French- and Dutch-administered areas, so smooth trade and travel reign between the three.
Blondel Cluff, Anguilla’s representative in London, told Al Jazeera that her compatriots use Saint Martin for everything from the international airport, specialist shops and even the nearest MRI scanner.
“Saint Martin is our backyard, and we are theirs. Everyone has family there too. If that border becomes like Dover and Calais, that’s going to make life very difficult for Anguilla,” she said.
The Pitcairners have a similar relationship with their nearest neighbour Mangareva, part of French Polynesia, about 500km away.
Lupton-Christian, the beekeeper, claims that plans to sell fish and fruit to Mangareva had been put on hold by Paris and London, seemingly due to pre-Brexit limbo.
“We had high hopes to trade with French Polynesia, we were hoping to be their market gardener. But they are very supportive. They tell us, ‘Brexit doesn’t matter, you are still our neighbour and we will look after you the best we can.'”
We had a revolution 50 years ago and we fought to remain British, it’s part of our heritage. We’re happy to be British but the question is what does that mean post-Brexit?
Blondel Cluff, Anguilla’s representative in London
In the British government’s framework document on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the overseas territories get a passing reference: “The UK will be seeking specific arrangements for the Crown Dependencies, Gibraltar and the other Overseas Territories.
“This will ensure an appropriate and beneficial future relationship across the UK family, taking into account the Crown Dependencies’ and Overseas Territories’ existing relationships with the EU, while upholding their British sovereignty.”
Both Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are subject to territorial claims from both Spain and Argentina, respectively, and some have voiced concern that any loss in Britain’s diplomatic weight post-Brexit may imperil their sovereignty.
Pinkerton, the lecturer, notes that security for citizens of the overseas territories does not only mean defence.
“It’s also about looking to the UK to create avenues for economic success and the UK does that partly from its EU membership,” he said. “EU withdrawal will fundamentally affect how some communities can function, or even their viability. Is the UK willing to support these territories during what could be a painful economic transition?”
For Cluff, the Anguillan representative, the question of Brexit prompts a reassessment of identity altogether.
“We had a revolution 50 years ago and we fought to remain British, it’s part of our heritage. We’re happy to be British but the question is what does that mean post-Brexit?”