Brexit from Chagos: Not on the cards!

History was made on Thursday 23rd June when votes were cast in the UK on whether to stay in the EU or to leave it.

On Friday, results showed that a majority of voters had decided to leave the UK. David Cameron, the British Conservative PM who had campaigned to stay in the EU, resigned. His successor from the Conservative Party is yet to be designated. The shockwave travelled to the other side to the Labour Party as well. Jeremy Corbyn, accused of timidity in his campaign for Britain to stay in the EU, lost a vote of confidence of Labour MPs this Wednesday evening by a 172-40 majority and has been asked to resign as Leader.

For Britain, it has been a difficult association ever since 1973 when it was agreed to join it with the European Economic Community. Two years later, in 1975, there was a referendum already in the UK whether to stick to Europe. It was decided to stay on. Even then, UK remained the reluctant associate, choosing to opt out of several EU arrangements such as the euro, discussing hard on its budget contributions to the EU and, finally, Cameron being pushed in 2013 into conceding, in favour of unity in the party, to organise a referendum again being confronted with a rising tide of euro sceptics within the Conservative Party.

As a UK, disarrayed by the referendum outcome to leave, is biding for time to activate Clause 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon to give effect to its exit from the EU, the latter on the other hand wants to quickly put an end to the surrounding uncertainty and to move on to consolidate itself for the better, minus the recurrent tracasseries from the UK as in the past. Clearly, the UK government has to realign itself around a new leader to give clear orientation to the post-Brexit British establishment. Will Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage or someone else give the new direction now to a Britain all by itself? We don’t know yet.

This uncertainty is not only valid for the UK and the EU. The whole world has been upset by the decision. There are dire predictions for the UK economy as a consequence of the June 23rd vote. Some even claim it may spin into recession if not an outright downturn, having cut its umbilical cord from the EU, its largest trading partner. Also, without saying it in so many words, the EU will not look too kindly upon the Brexit establishment in the UK.

Mauritius has developed important trade ties over the years with the UK and after the UK’s association with the EU, we’ve firmed up our trade relations with the EU as a whole under the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) agreement which opened up more space for our trading activities in the EU. Were the UK economy to slow down significantly in the aftermath of June 23rd, our trade access to this market may suffer. Similarly, if the EU did not contain itself integrally after Brexit, it might tighten up or revise trade access under the ACP agreement in the wake of its breakup with the UK. There are risks both ways.

Without putting into question our historical trade ties with either the standalone UK or an EU bracing itself for a weaker global economy, Mauritius has a duty to look for lasting new berths in alternative markets. This is what a country placed in a situation such as the present one would be doing – should have done since long.

We’ve been doing business with the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), exporting textiles and primates, among others, under preferential market access terms. The Act has been renewed up to 2025. This is our fallback position just in case our trade prospects are hurt by the UK-EU uncertainty.

As they say, misfortunes don’t come singly. By sheer coincidence, Mauritius aired recently its intention to be a party to the discussions Britain and the US are due to have this year pertaining to renewal of the lease of part of our territory, the Chagos Archipelago (which includes the island of Diego Garcia currently leased out by the UK to the US for military purposes) that was unlawfully excised by Britain when discussions for our independence from the UK were on the table, back in the 1960s.

Against the longstanding stubborn resistance of the UK, vague on commitment as to a date to return the Chagos to Mauritius and even ignoring Mauritius’ legitimate claim on the territory and its demand to be a party at the table to sort out matters between the US and the UK for renewal of the Diego Garcia lease this year, Mauritius stated that it was intending to invoke the issue with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague to seek an Advisory Opinion from it as to whether its claim against unlawful excision of territory stood the test of international laws. Mauritius can have recourse to the ICJ after securing a two-thirds vote of the UN General Assembly in its favour and is prepared to confront this eventuality to establish its legitimate right over the Chagos and not solely Diego Garcia where American troops are stationed since around 1966. Not that Mauritius is averse to the US military presence in Diego Garcia, as it has affirmed umpteen times.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement in Parliament on 17th May – anticipating that the UK would de facto automatically renew the lease of Diego Garcia for a further 20 years without Mauritius’ involvement – that he was minded to get the UK to give better clarity to its usual vague statements on the issue, there was unexpectedly a Joint Press release on 24th June by the British High Commission and the US embassy in the matter. It came as a surprise to Mauritian citizens that the US which had so far conveniently refrained from joining in as a party in the matter, co-signed an unbecoming note from two countries we’ve always considered as being sympathetic to us despite differences of opinion we may be holding on specific issues of mutual concern.

Amongst others, it contained an explicit threat that should Mauritius seek to restore its legitimate territorial claim – and that too by obtaining an Advisory from the ICJ – it “would cause lasting damage to Mauritius’ bilateral relations with both the UK and the USA.” The US representative – from whom we have never sought an opinion as to our territorial claim on the Chagos — went as far as to state that it does not recognise “the Republic of Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty of that Territory”. Flabbergasting, from the representative of one of the founder-members of the UN who caused to be put down in the UN Charter soon after its birth that it was unlawful for colonizers to excise territories before giving independence to countries!

The “lasting damage” the US representative is mentioning cannot be divorced from existing trade relations Mauritius has with the US by virtue of the AGOA. The message clearly is: ‘do not seek legal clarification of your position on Chagos at the risk of seeing your trade access to US markets damaged.’ While we could have looked upon the US as an alternative trade partner of more significance in the light of all the turmoil playing out in Europe in the wake of Brexit, here we are, faced with a hostility we didn’t invite or bargain for!

To add to this already complicated situation for Mauritius, the UK Supreme Court decided on Wednesday last the appeal case lodged before it by Chagossians to be allowed to return to Chagos (from which they were deported to Mauritius back in 1971 after the UK decided to set up the artificial construct, the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory, including Chagos, after its excision from the Mauritius territory). The court ruled by a majority that disclosure of Foreign Office documents assessing the feasibility report on the return of the Chagossians would not have altered the decision given by the House of Lords against the application for their resettlement in Chagos. A spokeswoman of the UK Foreign Office expressed her satisfaction at the Supreme Court’s decision to maintain the House of Lords’ 2008 ruling in favour of the UK government against the Chagossians.

What is at stake for Mauritius in the light of all these developments? The economic question remains in doubt, given the European turmoil. As to the legitimate rights of Mauritius over Chagos, we need not be cowed down – as a matter of principle — by the US-UK joint intimidation that we should not have recourse to independent courts outside their jurisdiction, such as the ICJ, to regain our sovereignty over the Chagos. One would have wished that the US had not stepped so clumsily into this debate putting in jeopardy our economic well-being. But the world is here to see the extremes to which political dominance against legitimate claims can be exerted on countries which are not that strong materially.

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2016

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