The United Kingdom’s planned overseas territory strategy, public company registers, and other topics were on the agenda this week in London when OT leaders met with senior UK officials at the annual Joint Ministerial Council.
Among those UK officials was former Prime Minister David Cameron, who replaced James Cleverly as foreign secretary in a surprise appointment that coincided with the first day of the JMC meetings on Monday.
“[The JMC] will focus on reframing the relationships between the OTs and the UK, as well as the development of a new UK strategy for its engagement with the overseas territories,” Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said last Thursday during a pre-JMC press conference alongside Deputy Premier Lorna Smith. “This effort to reframe the relationship is about identifying and affirming certain political principles to minimise friction and promote a more supportive posture by the UK for territories, especially after the severe strains experienced over the years that damaged the relationship.”
The premier — who travelled to London with Ms. Smith and other VI delegates — also laid out a six-point list of topics he hoped to address concerning the relationship between OTs and the UK:
• respect for OTs’ devolved governments;
• respect for the role of the OTs’ legislatures;
• the will of the people, their culture and theirvalues;
• self-governance and political advancement;
• support for sustainable development; and
• climate change assistance.
The communique usually issued after JMC
meetings had not been released as of Beacon press time yesterday afternoon.
Second JMC in 2023
Though JMC meetings are typically held once a year, this week’s — which was held Monday through Wednesday — was the second of 2023.
The previous JMC was originally scheduled for last fall, but it was postponed amid a massive UK leadership shakeup when Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned in September 2022 and his successor Liz Truss followed suit the next month. It was held instead on May 11-12.
At that meeting, Mr. Cleverly announced that the UK government was developing a new OT strategy.
The same month, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would ask each of his Cabinet ministers to nominate a lead minister responsible for the OTs in their department.
Last Thursday, Dr. Wheatley said he has seen progress in recent months.
“Over the past year, we saw examples of that, with many departments coming in making presentations,” the premier said. But he also noted that similar UK commitments have been in place for more than a decade.
“If you look in [the 2012 White Paper, ‘The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability’], you’ll see that Whitehall should have much more involvement with the overseas territories,” the premier said. “But up until now, we haven’t seen it. But we’ve seen a noticeable difference with the former OT Minister Zac Goldsmith, and we hope that continues with [current OT Minister] David Rutley.”
Public company registers
Dr. Wheatley said this week’s JMC agenda also included discussions about public registers of beneficial ownership. Under UK pressure, the VI government grudgingly agreed in September 2020 to sign on to a UK plan for the OTs and crown dependencies to implement such registers by the end of 2023.
The VI government subsequently began laying the groundwork for the move, but last November the European Union Court of Justice issued a ruling that threw the plan into question.
In a case involving Luxembourg’s then-public registry, the court ruled that a key provision of the EU’s own anti-money-laundering directive — which requires beneficial ownership information to be available to the public— was invalid.
Experts said the EU court’s decision shifted the field of play for the VI and other OTs, and VI leaders have not yet announced the way forward. Last Thursday, Dr. Wheatley cited the EU ruling when addressing the topic.
“The Virgin Islands is a jurisdiction that respects fundamental human rights, including the rights to privacy and data protection. Both were highlighted by the European Court of Justice and a ruling earlier this year on public registers,” he said. “The position of the court is that the implementation of public registers should not violate individuals’ right to privacy and data protection. Violation of these fundamental human rights can lead to unwanted legal challenges. This is something that [the VI] takes very seriously.”
Dr. Wheatley and other leaders have frequently stressed that the VI already has in place a Beneficial Ownership Secure Search System that is accessible to law enforcers abroad on request.
“As the jurisdiction of Virgin Islands currently exchanges beneficial ownership information seamlessly with UK law enforcement agencies via the [BOSSS], we have been able to assist the UK in their investigations using the system and will continue to be a good international partner in combating financial crime,” the premier said last Thursday.
Plans to borrow
During the press conference, Dr. Wheatley also answered questions about his government’s plans to borrow to fund long-delayed hurricane recovery projects and other infrastructure works.
Many such projects have languished for want of funding after successive governments declined to take up the UK’s 2018 offer of a £300 million loan guarantee to help recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria the previous year.
Dr. Wheatley said last week that the guarantee was off the table by the time he became premier, but he has been seeking other options.
“We are currently in conversations with the United Kingdom to support us in borrowing and getting money as cheaply as possible,” Dr. Wheatley said. “It’s literally hundreds of millions of dollars that we will need.”
The premier did not provide a more specific figure — and he declined to say whether more than a half billion dollars is needed to fully recover from the 2017 hurricanes and the pandemic — but he acknowledged the VI needs expensive repairs.
“We’re in discussions with the financial secretary right now,” the premier said. “But it’s my intention to borrow upwards of $100 million … as cheaply as we can.”
The UK, however, will need to sign off on any loan, according to the premier.
“We cannot borrow without the permission of the [UK],” he said. “Those figures will be presented and in the budget, but we’ll borrow what we can afford to pay back.”