Europe in the Caribbean (2007)


Having dominated the Caribbean from the 15th to the 19th centuries, Europe today occupies a much reduced position within the region in respect of its remaining overseas territories, located mainly in the Lesser Antilles.

Furthermore, addressing the question of Europe's place in the Caribbean comes down to issues of continuing support, at first view seemingly anachronistic, for the few remaining European territories in the region. Equally, it becomes in attempt to clarify the role of the European Union (EU) within this fragmented space, at the same time viewed as both insular and continental, pulling together countries bordering the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. Overall, this is a developing regional in which the United States, a leading world power, occupies an overwhelming presence.

An analysis of the nature of Europe's foothold in the Caribbean is followed by the question as to whether or not Europe can fulfil a role as both agents of development and of cooperation. Lastly, is respect of the geopolitical and economical transformations of recent years, the limits of this presence in the Caribbean today need to be interrogated.

1. The specificities of European territories in the Caribbean

The European territories are distinguished by a number of specificities which afford them separate identity within the Caribbean.

Islands that are more or less autonomous

Certain islands such as the French Antillian Overseas Departments and Regions (DROM) are integrated by their political attachment to a major European power, hence in turn to the European Union (see diagram). Such are the cases of Martinique and Guadeloupe, including their dependencies (Marie-Galante and La Désirade), French Guiana, a department situated in South America, is sometimes identified with the Caribbean region.

In contrast, other islands have achieved greater autonomy. As such, the French part of Saint Martin, also that of Saint Barthélemy, both former dependencies of Guadeloupe, chose in 2007 to become French Overseas Collectivities(COMs). They have been accorded a unique territorial status with limited autonomy.1 The Netherlands Antilles, which groups together the Federation of the Dutch Antilles (the islands of Curacao, Bonaire, Saint Eustatius, and Saba), the Dutch owned part of Saint Martin (Sint Maarten) and the island of Aruba still enjoy different statutes still awaiting resolution. Aruba, for its part, still benefits from an autonomous status within the Kingdom of the Netherlands since 1986, whilst Sint Maarten separated from the Dutch Antillian Federation in 2007 to become a Dutch commune with special status. As for the British West Indies (Anguilla, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, British Virgin Islands, Montserrat); they remain overseas dependencies of the United Kingdom. The Queen, represented by a governor, is nominally Head of State. The United Kingdom is otherwise responsible for foreign affairs, external defence and internal security, and public services.

For everything else, political autonomy is guaranteed by a Prime minister and Chamber of deputies. Whilst the citizens of the Dutch Antilles enjoy Dutch nationality, those of the British islands have a place specific nationality. Note, however, that the inhabitants of Montserrat, following the devastating eruptions of the Soufriere Hills Volcano, at a time when independence negotiations were already underway, obtained in 1998 the right of residence in the United Kingdom, and in 2002 British citizenship.

Beyond these differences in status linked to the national identity of their metropole, it should be emphasised that these islands do not share the same degrees of integration inside the European Union. The French Overseas Departments and Regions benefit from their status as Outermost Regions (OMR) which as of right are part of the EU, whilst the Dutch and British islands have the status of Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT), but are not directly part of the EU. Even though European legislation does not apply in theses territories, their populations enjoy EU citizenship, and participate in the election of the European Parliament just like the OMR.



High living standards are to be found within the Caribbean

Somewhat less favoured by comparison with mainland community averages, the European territories of the Caribbean appear as ‘islands of plenty' within the Caribbean. Per capita GDP is around 30 000 US dollar for the Cayman Islands,2 20 000$ for Aruba and Martinique, but below 4 000$ for Costa Rica, 3 800$ for Saint Lucia, or just 400$ for Haiti, one of the poorest countries on the planet. It follows that these differentials in wealth in turn generate outflows of economic migrants, often poorly qualified and more or less clandestine, as for example between Haiti and Guadeloupe, or even further to Europe.

The wealthier islands are viewed as the window displays of Europe with which they share in large part culture, values, high levels of consumption as well as efficient health services, particularly in the case of the French Antilles. Again, these territories are sometimes perceived as overseas appendices developed from outside the Caribbean. In effect, it is essential to emphasise that these islands are highly targeted, whether by France in the case of the French Antilles, or by the United States for the British and Dutch overseas territories, as much in respect of commerce and trade as in air transport links.

Limited intra-regional integration for European territories in the Caribbean

It is clear that a certain number of socio-economic obstacles (customs and commercial barriers, whether regulatory or not; differentials in labour costs and standards of living; specialisation of competing systems of production), cultural practices (different official languages – Spanish, English, French, Dutch), or political impediments (visas, regional political instability) reduce the possibilities for exchange with the rest of the Caribbean.

Whether the territories in question are French, British, or Dutch, their integration within various economic associations, or in regional cooperation, poses problems. For example, the OMR in as much as they remain French regions, cannot directly participate within organisations of regional cooperation which group together independent territories, but are instead represented within the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) by the French state which benefits from proxy membership. The Turks and Caicos Islands, as well as Aruba, are for example, afforded separate full membership of the ACS, whilst the Netherlands only have observer status. As for CARICOM (Caribbean Community), the British and Dutch islands have either observer status or associated membership. In contrast, the French Antilles are not represented. The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) for its part only affords membership to the British dependencies.

In summary, the diversity of situations found, as well as the large number of organisations of cooperation,3 testify to the difficulties of integrating European territories into a fragmented Caribbean region struggling both to organise itself and to promote economic development.

2. Europe, an agent for both regional development and cooperation

Europe, and in particular the European Union which took on the mantle of the former colonial metropoles, with significantly greater financial means, appears as a highly focussed agent of development and regional cooperation in the Caribbean. The European territories moreover are the first beneficiaries.

European territories, favoured territories

With departmentalisation (1946), the French Antilles experience a strengthened assimilation and benefit from important transfers of public investment by the state. As a consequence, the local economy relies increasingly on the commercial and public sectors. Elsewhere, the status of OMR draws attention to those areas experiencing backwardness and handicaps in development (remoteness of continental Europe, scant land resources and internal markets, insularity, natural environment constraints, too little economic diversification, high unemployment, etc.), clearly favouring access to European funding, and in particular that available within the Objective 1 framework of the EU regional policy4 countering spatial disparities. As such the OMR where eligible to apply for structural funds in order to put in place both infrastructure and development projects. For example, the container terminals of the ports of Jarry (Guadeloupe) or Fort-de-France (Martinique) were financed through European funding.

Relations (currently under renegotiation) between the OCT and the European Union are periodically reviewed within the framework of association agreements focussed on economic and commercial cooperation as well as sustainable development projects. The European Development Fund made possible the financing of a public sanitation system on the island of Bonaire. Access to European and national funds is however harder for these autonomous territories than for the OMR. It is why the British and Dutch Antilles had to find alternative ways forward in terms of development needs, and would increasingly seek to globalise their economies. They gravitated notably into the tourism sectors (all inclusive hotel holidays, cruises...), offshore finance, or again the oil industry.

However, beyond these few dependencies, this has not prevented Europe from retaining policy interests across the whole of the Caribbean.

An EU – ACP (Africa-Caribbean-Pacific) partnership in the Caribbean

Whilst the European metropoles have maintained close ties with their now independent former colonies (Commonwealth, Iberian-American conferences), the EU has put in place a number of accords with the countries of the Caribbean. In particular, these include the so-called Lomé conventions (1975-2000) with the ACP. The majority of states in the Lesser and Greater Antilles, as well as Belize and the Guyanas, are partly to this initiative. The particularity of these accords lies essentially in the choice of a preferential export system in favour of the EU, with reduced import duties for a select number generally raw agricultural products (bananas, sugar, rice, rum). These accords have emphasised the greater specificity of EU commercial policy in the Caribbean as compared to the much more liberal policy of the USA;

Even so, the Lomé conventions have been questioned because of their incompatibility with directives from the World Trade Organization. Since 2000, negotiations underway in Cotonou are re-defining the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the EU and the ACP states of the Caribbean.

In addition, the EU funds development projects in a number of Caribbean countries. The main areas of development chosen are tourism, transport, or environmental protection (e.g. Costa Rica). In parallel with these actions, the EU is committed to strengthening the whole process of regional integration by associating its own territories which hitherto have been largely excluded.

The establishment of active cooperation policies

In order to reconcile these varied situations, the European Union supports the regional integration policy of the ACS and that of CARICOM (see diagram). The consolidation of economic associations and of regional cooperation implies a double stake. Firstly, it allows both an internal development based upon exchange and additional weight being afforded to these groupings in the context of international negotiations.

Secondly, for both the EU and the European states the objective is to facilitate the integration of their territories in the Caribbean. Better integration will allow the emergence of regional markets for the economies of the OCT and OMR, the affirmation of “Caribbeaness” of populations in search of identity, and equally the transformation of these territories from being European ‘shop windows' into regional anchor points, platforms for a wider communal policyin the Caribbean. To this end, INTERREG cooperation programmes have been introduced. They support and fund a number of projects in various domains, in particular tourism, the development of fishery resources, the use of renewable energy, the diffusion of information and knowledge or again ICT networks. In the context of INTERREG IIIB (2000-2006) a submarine broadband fibre optic cable was laid from Puerto Rico in order to connect up the whole of the Lesser Antilles so as to reduce the costs of internet communications.

Today the EU' commitment to economic development is clear, particularly in the Lesser and Greater Antilles, through its diverse polices of transfrontier, transnational, and intra-regional cooperation. However, its presence in the Caribbean needs to be relativized.

3. Europe's uncertain presence in the Caribbean

Indeed, the transformations instigated as much, at a global and European level, as within the European territories themselves in the Caribbean, raise a number of questions.

A less favourable international context

The end of the Cold War and the enlargement of the European Union to include a number of Central and East European countries, led to reduced EU interest in the Caribbean and, in turn, reduction in the availability of funds, in as much as several member states, bereft of Caribbean connections, found it difficult to understand commercial preferences in favour of these faraway places. This situation would become a source of internal conflict as proved to be the case over the banana trade.

Furthermore even if these islands remain points of contact in providing regional support (essentially humanitarian aid), they no longer represent strategic locations in relation to national defence.

Globally over recent years, there has been a perceptible drop in development aid from the EU to eh Caribbean.5 Trade is also contracting.

Note again that at major international summits of the European Union, the Caribbean is often identified with Latin America. It no longer stands out in its own right, and can appear sometimes as a “dead angle” within the globalised economy. To the South of Europe, the Mediterranean is seen today as a nearby zone of influence for the EU, arguably more promising than the far-off Caribbean, now firmly within the American orbit.

Europe, counterpoint to American power in the Caribbean?

The presence of Europe, and particularly the EU, is often seen as a counterpoint to American power in the Caribbean.

It is worth remembering that in the 19th century, the growing decolonisation of the Caribbean and the withdrawal of the European presence gave way to an increased American influence which stemmed from the Monroe Doctrine “America for the Americans.” The Caribbean world, whether Hispanic, Dutch, or British, is today largely Americanised, including the British and Dutch dependencies; the French Antilles remaining something of an exception.

European economic interests effectively limit themselves to a few sectors like tourism in the Dominican Republic or Cuba (subject to US embargo), where the Spanish Sol MeliaGroup has made significant investments.6 

As for a European military presence, it is the former metropoles that act as an intermediary. The French military presence, for example, of which one of its interventions relates to countering the trafficking of narcotics, appears somewhat slight when compared to the size of US involvement.

The United States for their part contribute to the development of Caribbean via multiple development programmes, which occasionally compete with those put in place by the European Union. In exchange for a modest level of aid, the US receives solid reciprocal support within international institutions like the United Nations. This prospect does not apply in the case of the EU, which does not represent a powerful political block and to whom a clear strategy of defence of its interests is lacking.

Elsewhere, the conditions under which the European presence remains in the Caribbean are susceptible to a number of continuing changes.

What statutory changes does the future hold for the European territories?

With different statutes holding sway across national entities, the European territories in the Caribbean aspire overall to increased autonomy, whether between themselves (as when they form local communal management entities) or in relation to their metropole.

So after the dissolution planned for 2010 of the autonomous state of the Federation of the Netherlands Antilles, Curacao and Sint Maarten formed two new autonomous states (in addition to that of Aruba and the state of the Netherlands), and three other islands (far less populated) would be integrated to the state of the Netherlands as “Dutch municipalities with special status.”

The same tendency towards “de-grouping” manifests itself in the French Antilles where each of the islands lays claim to a certain level of management autonomy in relation both to its neighbour and to the metropole. Elsewhere, the establishment of the ‘Estates General' following the social and political uprisings of early 2009, allows for a clear proclamation te be placed before the territories in question on an institutional evolution within the French Republic.

Adopting this perspective, the maintenance or not of European funding becomes the key question. The recent evolution in status in the case of St. Barthélemy and that of the French part of St. Martin, should translate itself into changing from OMR to OCT.

Finally, the European presence in the Caribbean appears to be entering a new stage. Already one has seen how the maintenance of European territories in the Caribbean has led to their isolation within their own regional environment. It explains why it become necessary to reinforce their links with the rest of the Caribbean through the use of new technological, human and financial resources emanating from Europe. This policy was not new, but the present geopolitical and economic context at precisely the moment when cooperation policies between the EU and the Caribbean were running out of breath, rendered imperious the search for new forms of development. Given this perspective, the change in status of Caribbean European territories towards greater autonomy is often presented as a necessary precursor.

Furthermore, this evolution runs the risk of translating itself in the medium term into Europe's slow disengagement from the Caribbean. Should one see in this scenario confirmation of an historic withdrawal just when the United States, still wishing to maintain their hold on the Caribbean, sees itself challenged by other powers, as for example Venezuela, Brazil but also China, in search of international recognition.

1 The French COMs dispose of a degree of autonomy in respect of customs and fiscal matters.

2 Per capita wealth in the Cayman Island sis comparable to that of the USA.

3 Other groupings exist notably between mainland states.

4 Objective 1 regions deemed underdeveloped (that is OMR or other regions where the GDP per capita is less than 75% of the commercial average.

5 European aid to CARICOM, for example, has declined by 55% since the 1990s.

6 The Sol Melia Group owns 24 hotels in Cuba.




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European Commission:

Author: Yvan Bertin
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith