Brexit, a new dawn for UK/Africa relations?
Since 31 January, the Union Jack no longer flies in Brussels and Strasbourg. The promise of a “new dawn” made that same evening by the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has finally seen the light of day.

While it will take until 1 January 2021 for the divorce between the UK and the EU to be consummated, the trade agreements and other treaties, including those signed with African countries, which linked the British to the rest of the world via the EU have already obsolete and need to be renegotiated. Analysis. On 31 January this year, three and a half years after the historic referendum in which the British voted in favour of “Brexit”, the United Kingdom left the European Union. The divorce, the details of which have not been defined by London and Brussels, has been signed for better or worse after forty-seven years of an admittedly often stormy marriage! If you are a “Brexiteer”, mostly rural and conservative, sometimes even extreme right-wing, you feel free from the diktat and the technocratic heaviness of the European institutions. You even almost imagine an Eldorado for investors practising fiscal dumping at the gates of Europe. As for the rather urban and progressive “Remainers”, and the Europeans, you are less likely to be optimistic. The Brexiteers fear the end of free movement and a much heavier economic and social bill than expected, and the Remainers fear alienating other EU member states, heralding the end of community ambitions, or even the end of the EU for that matter. 

Technically speaking, this 31 January will be more symbolic than anything else, at least until the end of the 2020. The economic treaties signed between the EU and the United Kingdom, and those concerning the free movement of DÉCRYPTAGE goods and people in particular, remain valid as long as the so-called “post-Brexit” negotiations carried out within the framework of the “transition period” have not led to the conclusion of new ones. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, BoJo for the media, who claims that things will be “done and dusted” by 31 December 2020, is showing rare optimism when we know that any treaty between the Union and its partners takes between three and seven years to be ratified. From then on, and until further agreement, the United Kingdom will continue to “be subject to” the orders of Brussels, without having to contribute, it is true (it should be remembered, however, that it recovered almost all of its share in the form of subsidies), but without having a say either, given that the British Members of Parliament have left the Parliament in Strasbourg and that the Commissioners and other councillors of the Big Island have had to return the key to their offices to the Commission.

 However, the UK “mechanically left the 600 international agreements concluded by the Union on behalf of its Member States” on 31 January`, as the head of the European negotiating team, Frenchman Michel Barnier, said, and intends to take advantage of this. Bojo has already informed his American allies that he hopes to strengthen ties. President Trump, for his part, said that an “amazing” treaty would soon be signed. The same goes for Beijing, the Middle East, Canada, and, as far as we are concerned, Africa. 

Boosted under Teresa May, the strengthening of economic relations with the continent is therefore on the agenda more than ever and the first UK-Africa Summit on 20 and 21 January in London was certainly the founding act. It is therefore an unprecedentedly charm offensive that the United Kingdom has been engaged in for nearly two years with Africa in an attempt to establish new business partnerships and to make up for some of the GDP points lost in the European market. One of London’s objectives is to do so before the terms of the divorce with the EU are ratified. This operation is all the more delicate as the former colonial power has only maintained distant relations with almost all African countries. It should be remembered in particular that before Teresa May’s tour in 2018, no Prime Minister had set foot on the continent’s soil for five years, and for thirty years in the case of Kenya, which was the first step.

 It is a delicate operation, therefore, but also an ambitious one, because London does not intend to be content with strengthening its historic alliances with English Speaking countries and is looking with barely concealed appetite towards French-speaking Africa in general, and the DRC in particular, whose resources in raw materials are of the greatest interest to it. “Since 2018, as Alex Vines, the director of Think Tank Chatham House, points out, the British government has recruited more than 400 men and women specialising in fields as diverse as international trade, security and development economics to strengthen its Africanist diplomatic network. » But London’s comparative advantage in trying to overtake the European countries is undoubtedly the “regained freedom” in the face of the “standards and burdens of the Union” in order to move towards “agile” and therefore more efficient trade, as economist Jean-Joseph Boillot points out. 

The latter also recalled that “about a third of the large companies present in Africa are of British origin: BP, Shell, Barclays, Standard Life, Vodafone, to name only the best known. » London has realised that without European solidarity - and the wealth and power that goes with it - it will lose a great deal of influence. Yesterday’s partners find themselves competitors in many business fields and, in the event of a “hard brexit”, i.e. without win-win economic partnership agreements with the EU being signed, there is a good chance that few countries will hesitate to alienate the EU by preferring “made in the UK”. However, and according to observers, London fooled the summit by proposing to allocate only $65 million to the technology sector that Africa so badly needs today. 

The global investment pledge, close to $7.5 billion, is indeed mainly for the extractive or financial sector, and this ratio clearly denounces a strategy centred on old revenues that Africa no longer wants. Finally, and let us dare to say it clearly, the Brexiters have won their electoral battle by imposing on it the central theme of the fight against African immigration in particular, which they argue Europe is directly complicit in. It will be difficult, however, to strengthen ties with Africa without reviewing visa policy, which remains one of the strictest. This easing of visa requirements, promised by Boris Johnson at the Summit, is officially on the agenda, but everyone knows that this promise is in total opposition to the promises made to the electorate during the referendum campaign. We will therefore have to choose between voters and interests of the UK in Africa, and few doubt which option will ultimately be taken. 

Fabrice Lehoux

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