This week the House of Commons will debate the Prime Minister’s proposed Withdrawal Deal from the EU and the joint Political Declaration about the future. There will be much sound and fury, and with luck some common sense and political truths, but I will be amazed if Africa gets a mention. Nevertheless, the UK’s withdrawal and future relations with the EU will have profound implications for Africa and for Britain’s relations with Africa.
I have regularly over the past year asked visiting African leaders what they thought of Brexit. Most say they are puzzled: they don’t understand why the UK is leaving. If the British people want to leave, that’s fine by them. But why give up the power, influence and prosperity that comes with membership? For what? For years the UK has preached to Africa the benefits of economic integration, the merits of cooperation, the value of international organisations, and here is the UK leaving the finest example of these things in the world. It is hard to attempt an explanation without bringing immigration into the discussion, which doesn’t necessarily help persuade Africans of its merits.
So Brexit is a hard sell in Africa. African countries (especially Commonwealth ones) will lose a friend in the EU; the EU aid budget, through the European Development Funds (EDF), will shrink; the EU market, to which they have free access, will get smaller; and they don’t yet know whether in the long term the UK will step up to fill these gaps.
Of course, as I commented before in relation to the PM’s recent Cape Town speech, many Africans do see Brexit as a great opportunity to get a better deal from the UK than they currently have from the EU. They are hoping for more money, more trade concessions, better access for people as well as goods, more tolerance of their political situation. As the Zimbabwean foreign minister put it, Britain now needs us more than we need them. They are expecting the call and the offer. If the UK cannot respond positively, there is a risk they too will be disappointed in Brexit - not the Brexit they were hoping for either.
Of course, it is a situation where much will continue the same, even while underneath things have changed substantially.
Take trade. The EU trade regime with Africa is not bad, but not perfect. Most poor African countries have complete duty-free, quota-free access to the whole EU market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) provisions. The middle income ones who do not - in southern Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal etc - are governed by the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) which under WTO rules required some reciprocity of market opening after a (negotiable) transitional period. The EPAs have long had a bad press and remain the object of deep suspicion in countries like Nigeria which are determined to maintain the level of protection for their domestic business interests. Some were hoping the UK would throw away the EPAs on leaving the EU and fling open its market with no reciprocal obligations. In the event, the British Government has announced that it will in fact roll-over and preserve the EPAs for the foreseeable future as this is both simple to do and defensible to British commercial interests. But if the UK ends up in either a Norway-plus arrangement or with the de facto continuation of the Customs Union, trade policy will continue to be set primarily by the EU, with less input from the UK than now.
Or take aid. The UK will maintain its contribution to the EDF until the end of the Transition period in 2020. But it will not be part of the post-Cotonou arrangements now being negotiated between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Hitherto, the UK had played a major role in the negotiation of these deals, and been a major source of funding for the EDF. Given the length and depth of British experience in Africa, this worked to the benefit of both Africa and the EU in making the Cotonou deal as effective as possible for both parties. That experience will be lost to the negotiations. The ‘Political Declaration on the Future Framework for UK-EU Relations’ has all of 5 lines on ‘Development cooperation’. They suggest the parties establish a dialogue to enable mutually reinforcing strategies and ‘consider how the UK could contribute to the Union’s instruments and mechanisms’ - ie a continued financial contribution through the EDF is possible, but on terms (including on decision-making) yet to be defined.
The UK’s bilateral programmes in traditional partner countries could be gradually scaled up to replace lost EU income. But in many African countries, particularly francophone, the UK has no bilateral programme at all and has contributed to development through the EU and other multilateral agencies. Some continuity for these countries (amongst the poorest in the world) would reassure them that they will not suffer a cut in development assistance equivalent to the UK contribution to the EU.
Politically, there will also be continuity and change. The UK’s bilateral relations will remain primarily unchanged, though the Government’s welcome decision to reinforce both the network and the resources dedicated to Africa, outlined by the PM in the new strategic approach to the continent, will help raise its profile and capacity to engage. Coordination with EU member states will also continue, both on the spot and in international institutions, but will be less close as the UK will no longer be in the room at EU meetings. Such cooperation will need to move to other donor coordination groups, and African countries will have to rely on France, Germany, Portugal, the Dutch and Scandinavians to exercise influence within the EU on their behalf.
To continue to exercise influence in Africa, the UK will, as Philip Hammond once said, simply have to paddle harder. Much will depend on the extent of senior level engagement from British leaders. The Royal influence will remain significant, at least in Commonwealth countries, and the British Council, the BBC and the Premiership will be as popular as ever. But this kind of soft power does not translate into hard advantage without relative freedom of movement and adequate high level attention. Whether a Brexit Britain will deliver that remains to be seen.
So if, in the end, there is an unexpected decision not to go ahead with Brexit, many Africans will be relieved. But British credibility will still be damaged by this national political nervous breakdown that has so bitterly divided the country.
Nicholas Westcott is the director of RAS.