Premier Dr. Orlando Smith, shook hands with Lord Tariq Ahmad during the Joint Ministerial Council meetings last year in London. Lord Ahmad announced this month that OTs will have until 2023 to implement public registers. (File photo: GIS)

Brexit was at the top of the agenda when Premier Dr. Orlando Smith and other overseas territory leaders met with United Kingdom officials during the 20th Joint Ministerial Council last week in London.

But subsequent turmoil in the UK Parliament this week showed just how quickly the country’s volatile political climate can shift, leaving the OTs scrambling to keep up.

On Tuesday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May postponed a key vote on her administration’s plan to exit the European Union, sparking an outcry from many parliamentarians and bringing Brexit and her own future into question. Members of her Conservative Party subsequently forced a vote of no confidence that had the power to unseat her, though ultimately Ms. May won the vote, with 63 percent of Conservative MPs supporting her.

Days before, however, the UK had promised during the Dec. 4- 5 JMC meetings to ensure the “best outcome” for OTs when it withdraws from the EU.

“This follows assurances given by the UK government that, in the unlikely scenario that we leave the EU without a deal, existing projects under certain EU funding streams will be guaranteed by Her Majesty’s Treasury for the lifetime of those projects,” according to a statement released after the JMC by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Unlikely though a no-deal Brexit may be, the chances could have increased significantly this week. Before the no-confidence vote, Ms. May promised to return to a sceptical EU and negotiate further changes to a Brexit plan that faced apparently insurmountable opposition in Parliament.

Premier confident

Before the turmoil came to a head, Dr. Smith expressed confidence on Friday in the Virgin Islands’ ability to weather a Brexit.

“As the UK approaches life post-Brexit, there is a clear opportunity to highlight the role and value the BVI can play in helping the UK with international trade and development,” the premier said in a press release. “I was also encouraged by the number of conversations about business opportunities between the UK, the BVI and other overseas territories and how these can be harnessed most effectively.”

The UK also agreed to continue a dialogue about constitutional reform and acknowledged the need to expand “international partnerships and inclusiveness,” including greater participation from the OTs in its GREAT Britain campaign, which promotes trade and business, according to the VI press release. Additionally, the VI will be invited to take part in trade missions and advocate for the territory’s services, the release stated.

In terms of educational opportunities, the VI was invited to the Education World Forum in London in January. The UK also agreed to host an annual meeting every May before hurricane season to assess disaster preparedness plans across the OTs.

Public feedback

In the VI, UK relations have been the subject of renewed debate in recent months after the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into the country’s relationship with its OTs and Crown dependencies.

Though the UK launched no public campaign to solicit input here, Opposition Leader Andrew Fahie (R-D1) hosted meetings on the topic and Dr. Smith’s government solicited written input. Many responses are now publicly available online.

Written evidence submitted by government states that while the UK and the VI still “derive benefits” from their constitutional relationship and social and economic ties, a constitutional review could help put the relationship “on a more modern and progressive constitutional footing.”

The government also pointed out that the VI does not receive any funds from the UK for climate change adaptation and is not eligible for any non-EU international funding for climate change, biodiversity and disaster preparedness.

“OTs like the BVI, which suffer disproportionately from the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss, must be represented at international policy-making bodies where decisions are made on issues critical to them,” the government notes read.

Several pages of commentary were also submitted from the public meetings on a range of topics, including financing, trade agreements and extreme weather.

That document does not list an author, but it makes clear that the information it contains was gathered from the public meetings organised by Mr. Fahie and his team.

“There were several comments made about the current leadership, even one commentator calling them ‘morally bankrupt’ and another saying ‘we don’t get value for money,’” the report reads, adding, “Unfortunately, the ordinary person generally doesn’t see the many failures in the UK by its own leaders and somehow place a greater level of trust in an idealised view of ‘Her Majesty’ as a saviour from the current leaders.”

In early November, Elise Donovan, director of the BVI London Office, attended a session of the Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss issues involving the OTs in person.

Ms. Donovan went head-to-head with several MPs — most notably Labour Co-operative MP Mike Gapes — on the topic of the UK’s controversial decision to require public company registers in the VI and other OTs by the end of 2020.

Mr. Gapes told Ms. Donovan that there appears to be a pattern of “abuse of financial secrecy” in the OTs.

“Isn’t the reality that there is a secrecy about these matters on the part of people putting money through BVI-registered companies and that, as a result, dirty money has gone from Russia and elsewhere through companies registered in BVI?” he asked her.

Ms. Donovan responded, “The premise of that assertion is categorically false and misinformed.” She later argued that the VI has “no problem” with a public registry once it is a global standard.

The debate between the two, and with other members, continued in various forms until the chair of the meeting, MP Tom Tugendhat, stopped them.

“You have made your point admirably clear, Ms. Donovan,” he said. “You are a powerful advocate for your government, so I am very grateful that you are here.”

Another Foreign Affairs Committee session was held last week on Dec. 5 to further examine the role of the OTs, though the VI was not represented. According to the UK Parliament website, the inquiry is still open, and further oral evidence from OT leaders will be given on Dec. 18.