By Robert MacPherson
Adjunct researcher of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies
With only a few remaining hours left in the countdown to the Brexit referendum, the moment marks a critical juncture for the British: stay the course with the European Union or chart anew towards a separate vision?
The decision of Leave or Remain lies squarely now in the hands of British voters on Thursday. The implications are wide ranging, not only influencing the fate of an inextricably linked European Union, but impacting Africa’s future of trade and political cooperation as well.
African markets will likely be spared from the immediate aftermath of a Brexit economic earthquake, but nevertheless should expect to be caught in the ensuing aftershocks. Trembling well into the medium and long-term, these aftershocks triggered by British withdrawal will be felt not only through the recalibration of the existing agendas between the European Union and Africa, but also by the United Kingdom being forced to re-think its cooperation frameworks.
At the centre of the debate on Africa in the aftermath of a British exit are long running themes of immigration concerns and British sovereignty to forge trade agreements. As a current member of the European Union, the United Kingdom is unable to enter into free trade agreements in its own right. Pro-Brexit supporters believe this distorts British interests and frustrates the possibility for a more prosperous cooperation with Africa.
The British last year exported £5.8 billion to Africa, while importing £7.9 billion. Much of this activity was transacted on the basis of the Cotonou Agreement, which binds the European Union with 48 sub-Saharan countries on shared rules in development cooperation, political dimensions, and trade.
Prominent Leave supporters argue that such European Union-based cooperation agreement frameworks restrict the United Kingdom’s flexibility and reduces the attractiveness of deals, particularly with African Commonwealth Nations. Leave supporters suggest that separation from the European Union will enable a more nimble approach to refining and achieving more mutually beneficial deals, with the United Kingdom leveraging its historic knowledge of Africa, as well as shared legal, financial and cultural linkages with the Commonwealth Nations.
However, considering British trade volume with Asia, Continental Europe and North America surpasses that with Africa by magnitudes of 6-10 times, it is reasonable to assume that African territories will not be highly prioritized in the Leave scenario’s ensuing free trade agreement negotiations. Of course trade agreements are not a prerequisite for trade itself, but the absence of a more solid a framework would be detrimental to Africa.
Likewise, Africa would unlikely prioritize the United Kingdom above the European Union. It would make strategic sense for African territories to focus on improving cooperation with the much larger European Union market compared to a smaller and isolated United Kingdom.
As it stands, there are crucial areas of missed opportunity and frustration within the Africa – European Union nexus that must be prioritized and addressed. Within the agricultural space, for example, Africa continues to be “frustrated by existing EU policies” that “suppress technological innovation and industrial development among African countries,” according to Harvard professor Calestous Juma.
However, while “collective EU policies make it difficult for Africa to engage productively with the UK in areas such as agricultural biotechnology,” according to Juma, it should be noted that the British are widely considered an important voice, especially for Anglophone countries, for enhancing overall cooperation between the European Union and Africa. In a British Leave scenario, this voice would be lost and thus momentum possibly slowed towards reducing such crippling barriers.
Moreover, the United Kingdom in large part has driven the European Union’s development agenda and considering the European Union’s standing as one of Africa’s most significant donors, development cooperation would likely need to be restructured. As such, in the short-term, Africa would lose out from a weakened cooperation from a less robust European Union.
Whether or not a British withdrawal will benefit Africa will largely depend on the ultimate fate of the European Union. Ominous ripples from a potential Euro crisis, debt crisis and migration crisis may converge into a full-blown tsunami that drowns European Union aspirations and the bloc’s economic potential. If the European Union ultimately entered into a downward spiral, then Africa would benefit if the United Kingdom in retrospect made the right decision to exit and found itself less-scathed.
But, the fate of the European Union is anyone’s guess at this point, just as is the referendum on Thursday. The most recent Brexit polls suggest the vote will be down to the wire with a divide between Leave and Remain separated be only a few percentage points. The uncertainty has never been deeper, with the global standing of the United Kingdom and European Union swinging in the balance over this once-in-a-life-time vote of confidence.
Robert is an adjunct researcher at the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is also a Vice President at global M&A advisory Reciprocus International and a board member of Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance in the United States, actively advising and supporting early stage entrepreneurial ventures across Africa.
The NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies is a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation.