For more than a year now, Brexit makes the headlines almost every day in Europe. It can be argued that Brexit is an “unprecedented geopolitical shift” (BBC, 2016) given the weight of the UK, but it would be incorrect to state that it is an unprecedented event in itself. Other countries and territories left the EU before Brexit. You may remember or be aware about the withdrawal of Algeria and Greenland from the EEC, in 1962 and 1985 respectively.
However, did you know that another territory has left the EU very recently, only 5 years ago, in 2012? Could you guess? It is a volcanic island, an overseas collectivity of France. The answer is: Saint Barthelemy. This small area located in the Caribbean unilaterally decided to leave the EU in 2012. A kind of pre-Brexit. Obviously, there is a huge difference between Saint Barthelemy and the UK, geopolitically, economically, militarily and demographically speaking. Nevertheless, we can ask ourselves: why did Saint Barthelemy choose to leave the EU? How did they do it? What are the consequences, and can we make a comparison with Brexit? This article will try to answer those questions.
Bye Bye Guadeloupe
Fewer sources and information are available on “St-Barthexit” than Brexit of course, given the lower importance of the former, but some answers exist.
First, we need to know that Saint Barthelemy had previously chosen to leave the French overseas department of the Guadeloupe in 2007 following a referendum in 2003. Indeed, in December 2003, a referendum on the “institutional future” (avenir institutionnel) happened, where 72,98% of the voters decided to leave the Guadeloupe (Staff reporter, 2003). As a result, French Parliament passed a law later in 2007 making St. Barthelemy become one of the overseas collectivities (COM) of France, but at the same time remaining an outmost region (OMR) of the European Union. The reason why was that when Saint Barthelemy (St. Barths in short) was a commune of Guadeloupe before, they were still subject to national laws and reglementations (Jean-Christophe GAY, 2003). Now that they were COM, they gained special legislative rights and more autonomy (as seen in art. 74 of the French constitutions). However, it did not seem to be enough for St. Barths. An interesting (and paradoxical) fact, the inhabitants of Saint Barthelemy voted “yes” at 58,6% at the referendum on the European Constitution in 2005 (T-M.P, 2005), although it’s (in)famously known that France rejected it. So, why did they choose seven years later to leave the EU?
Why did St. Barths leave the Union?
In July 2007, the political party Saint Barth first! (Saint-Barth d’abord!), affiliated with the then-UMP, won the elections on the peninsula with 72,24%, gaining 16 seats out of 19 at the unicameral Territorial Council of the island (Mémoire, 2012). As the name of the party can make one guess, the self-determination of Saint Barthelemy comes first to them. This logic was by the way similar in the UK for Brexit. If St. Barths comes before the sovereignty of France, it also comes before the transfer of sovereignty to the EU.
After the elections, the officials declared that they wished to “obtain a European status which would be better suited to its status under domestic law, particularly given its remoteness from the mainland, its small insular economy largely devoted to tourism, and subject to difficulties in obtaining supplies which hamper the application of some European Union standards” (Fast Lane Team, 2017). St-Barthexit was made to facilitate trade with countries outside the EU, notably the United States. Indeed, when St. Barths was an OMR, all EU law applied on the island, including all the competition laws, which was “a factor of distortion of competition compared to neighboring countries” such as Puerto Rico, Grenada or Antigua-and-Barbuda (AFP, 2010). Within certain limits, the St. Barths community will be free to choose its tax and customs regime. Leaving the EU has also allowed St. Barths to exert local control over the permanent and temporary immigration of foreign workers including non-French European citizens (CIA, 2013). Immigration was therefore also one of the issues with St-Barthexit, as it was with Brexit.
How did they leave the Union?
No referendum happened in the case of St-Barthexit, it was the elected representatives of the Territorial Council of the island who requested so. At that time, the UMP was also in power in France. Consequently, Nicolas Sarkozy decided in 2010 to request the Council of the European Union to change the status of Saint Barthelemy to an OMR territory to an overseas country or territory (OCT) associated with the European Union (Council of the EU, 2010). This way, the inhabitants of Saint Barthelemy are out of the EU but keep their EU citizenship, the euro currency and some -but less – European development funds.
Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union was not triggered with St-Barthexit. It is arts. 349 and 355 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union that had been triggered, those articles deal with overseas territories and allow the change the status of EU status of Danish, Dutch, or French territories to become OCT. This having been done, the status change came into effect on the 1st January of 2012.
A real big research case on the field would be necessary to see the actual consequences of St-Barthexit, but we can deduce that the government and the inhabitants are okay with this choice. Indeed, St. Barth first! still wins absolute majority at every election, and the territory keeps some advantages (euro, European funds) as well as new perks (more autonomy, better competition policies). As a result, it is unlikely that St. Barth will come back in the EU. It is hard to compare with Brexit given the substantial difference between a 25 square kilometers volcanic island and the 6th biggest economy of the world. On one hand, a referendum happened for Brexit, but not for St-Barthexit, an art. 50 followed by tremendous negotiations did not take place, and the issue was not a considerable divisive debate in the society of the island like it was the case with Brexit. On the other hand, more autonomy, the undesired of immigrants and economic issues were related to St-Barthexit, as it was to Brexit. The comparison therefore is limited. In sum, only 5 years ago St. Barthelemy left the EU to gain more independence and become better suited for competition in the sector of tourism with the other Caribbean archipelagos. Brexit is hence not a new event, if it does happen.
Robin Vanholme is a Master Student at the Institute for European Studies at the ULB
- AFP, “La collectivité de Saint-Barthélémy obtient un nouveau statut européen”, site de cBanque, 29 October 2010, https://www.cbanque.com/actu/20523/la-collectivite-de-saint-barthelemy-obtient-un-nouveau-statut-europeen
- BBC, “Brexit: ‘An unprecedented geopolitical shift’”, 25 June 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36625209.
- CIA, The World Factbook, “Saint Barthelemy”, 2013, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tb.html
- COUNCIL OF THE EUROPEAN UNION, DRAFT EUROPEAN COUNCIL DECISION of on amendment of the European status of the island of Saint-Barthélemy, Brussels, 20 October 2010, 15224/10
- FAST LANE TEAM, “Another Country Quit the EU Before the UK – and it Didn’t Go Well!”, Site de ParcelCompare, 18 July 2017, https://parcelcompare.com/blog/business/quit-the-eu
- GAY, Jean.-Chistophe, L’outre-mer français. Un espace singulier, Paris, Belin coll. «SupGéo», 2003.
- Mémoire Saint-Barth, “résultats des élections territoriales de Saint-Barthélemy de 2012),http://elections2012.memoirestbarth.com/territoriales/saint-barthelemy/archives-resultats-scrutin
- STAFF REPORTER, « French Caribbean voters reject change », Caribbean Net News, 9 décembre 2003.
T-M.P, “Histoire de la Guadeloupe”, Or des Iles, http://ordesiles.com/?s=barthelemy