By Mark Simmonds
Good friends know the importance of communication – it brings us together, allows us to understand one another and resolves problems when they arise. It’s no different between countries.
Mark Simmonds MP is Minister of State in Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office
In an age where we increasingly rely on digital and social media to conduct business, I’m glad that meeting face-to-face remains a vital part of international diplomacy. This is certainly true for the special friendship between the UK and the Caribbean, where personal interaction, mutual understanding and shared values are at the heart of the relationship.
This is why I am delighted that this week Foreign Secretary William Hague and I will welcome Caribbean Foreign Ministers to London for the eighth UK-Caribbean Ministerial Forum.
The first Forum took place in 1998. Since then the UK and the Caribbean have seen changes of governments, endured crises -- both natural and man-made -- and celebrated success. The 2012 Olympics was a high point for both Team GB and the Caribbean’s track-stars (I expect more of the same from the likes of Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Kirani James and Jehue Gordon at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer). Throughout this time, the Forum has remained as the centre-piece for high-level discussion between the UK and the Caribbean on the big issues. This year’s event will be no exception.
Both the British and Caribbean governments are working with real vigour to boost economic growth, tackle the burden of debt and create jobs and opportunities for our citizens. We want the Forum to produce real results to support these efforts. We want to build an even stronger partnership to promote prosperity.
A central theme of the Forum -- and one in which I take a close interest -- is energy security. High oil import costs and inefficient power generation and distribution are a challenge for many Caribbean economies. Identifying long term energy solutions -- including natural gas and renewable technologies like wind, solar or geothermal power -- is a CARICOM priority. UK companies are amongst the best in the world in this field so it is an obvious area where collaboration will deliver benefits all round.
Education and skills are also key priorities for both Britain and the Caribbean – we all recognise that our young people are our best resource. At the Forum, we will ask how we can provide the vocational education, technical know-how and life skills that they need for the world of work.
Of course, tourism remains vital to many Caribbean economies. So I was pleased by the changes to the UK Air Passenger Duty recently announced by Chancellor George Osborne. These changes, which take effect from April 2015, will make a real difference. It will make it cheaper to fly to the Caribbean and will remove the anomaly of the tax being higher to travel to the Caribbean than to all US holiday destinations including Hawaii. This has been a challenging issue in our relationship – Caribbean governments and their tourism industries have lobbied hard for change. This gives us another opportunity to build our partnership for prosperity by promoting tourism and business travel.
Prosperity also involves bringing down barriers to economic growth. Serious and organised crime is perhaps the biggest. Not only does it ruin lives, but it undermines economies, discourages investment and impacts on tourism. The Forum will build on our already excellent co-operation to stop organised crime networks, including through the apprehension and extradition of criminals and by seizing the proceeds of their crime.
I’m pleased the Forum will show that the friendship between the UK and the Caribbean is about more than just government relations. Caribbean foreign ministers will meet parliamentarians from across the UK political spectrum, representatives of the private sector and leading figures from the large Caribbean community in the UK. To put business at the heart of the Forum I have asked the Caribbean Council to host a trade and investment event to highlight new opportunities for British and Caribbean companies in the Caribbean, UK and EU markets.
In my role as Foreign Office Minister for the Caribbean, I have had the pleasure of visiting Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados and I hope to visit more of the region before too long. These visits have brought home to me the fact that the UK-Caribbean relationship is defined by friendship. Like all friendships, we will not agree on everything but like all friendships worth having, it is open, honest and based on mutual respect. The Forum will allow us to reflect on how far we have come together but, more importantly, to focus on what more we can do to reach our shared goal of prosperous and secure societies, for the benefit of all our citizens.