Diplomatic relations between the European Union and Africa have long been shaped by post-colonial continuity: Africa exports raw materials, and Europe sends back manufactured goods. Another key aspect is Europe’s role as a source of development assistance. A number of momentous events have led to a review of this relationship. One is the rise of China as Africa’s leading trade partner. But no development has shaken the foundations of Africa-Europe cooperation as much as the seismic outcome of the UK referendum on EU membership.
Much of the initial analysis of Brexit’s impact justifiably focused on doomsday scenarios invoking “disaster” or “calamity”, and the uncertainty cannot be downplayed. The framing of the concerns,
though, reflects a traditional thinking that ignores both Africa’s economic vision and British aspirations in the post-Brexit world.
The EU has long sought to continue its traditional trade relationships by signing Economic Partnership Agreements it says are “tailor-made” for Africa’s regional realities. These EPAs are an attempt to address concerns regarding non-reciprocal EU trade deals deemed inconsistent with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. EPAs have been pursued with Africa’s regional economic communities, but not all members of each REC have been enthusiastic. Brexit has forced some of their concerns into the open. For example, Tanzania has withdrawn from the EPA being negotiated with the East African Community (EAC), citing post-Brexit uncertainties and unequal power relations with the EU.
Aziz Mlima, Permanent Secretary of the Tanzanian Foreign Ministry, expressed concerns that ‘the EPA will not benefit local industries in East Africa. Instead, it will lead to their destruction, as developed countries are likely to dominate the market.’ This view was reinforced by Tanzania’s former president Benjamin Mkapa, who said ‘I don’t understand how such a powerful trade bloc can have a free trade agreement with the developing economies of Africa. There is no way that our small economies can have free trade with Europe.’ The reference to the nascent state of African
industries underscores Africa’s shift from dependence on rawmaterial exports to an expansion of industry. African relationshipswith the rest of the world are starting to take account of the potential
impact on this vision.
“No development has shaken the foundations of Africa-Europe cooperation as much as the seismic outcome of the UK referendum on EU membership”
Countries that approach Africa in the context of competition with other nations, such as China, are unlikely to appreciate how the continent is repositioning itself. “Agenda 2063”, adopted in 2013 by the African Union (AU), seeks to refocus the continent as a collection of learning economies operating through regional economic blocs. The policy basis is laid out in the AU’s Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa Strategy (STISA-2024) of 2014. More specific strategies include efforts to transform agriculture and master the digital revolution, building on the continent’s experiences since adopting mobile technology.
This vision provides a new beginning for Africa, and a chance to engage constructively with the rest of the world through cooperation on science, technology and innovation. The scope of such cooperation with the EU and the UK will continue to expand irrespective of the outcomes of Brexit. Indeed, the UK has pledged not only to continue to work with its EU counterparts, but also to
extend cooperation to the rest of the world. Deepening science and technology cooperation with Commonwealth countries would be a natural next step. But British scientists are being dropped from EU-funded projects, prompting calls for action to safeguard their roles. This is occurring despite assurances from the European Commissioner for Science, Research and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, of continued support for existing collaborative programmes such as Horizon 2020. The benefits of scientific cooperation will probably outweigh political considerations in the end. Science offers nations the chance to work together despite political differences. It is against such a background that new relationships between Europe and Africa could build on Africa’s innovation agenda despite Brexit. This view requires analysts to temper their gloom and explore new opportunities.
There are several approaches African nations could adopt when responding to Brexit: mapping emerging trends and opportunities, enhancing economic diplomacy with a stronger emphasis on
innovation and entrepreneurship, and reforming governancestructures to reflect new global realities. A trend to watch is how the perception of diminished capabilities on the part of the UK and the EU could lead to a renewed emphasis on science and technology. This is likely to inspire stronger sub-national innovation ecosystems, with closer links between local or city governments, universities and industry. The ecosystems can then serve as focal points for international competitiveness and sources of solutions to global challenges, stimulating technology-based start-ups as well as incentivising existing businesses to scale up so they can operate in global markets.
“New relationships between Europe and Africa could build on Africa’s innovation agenda despite Brexit”
Global financial centres such as London will be exploring how to harness the UK’s scientific excellence to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Such shifts in British and EU approaches will
necessitate adjustments to Africa’s economic diplomacy – Rwanda, Ethiopia and Kenya have in recent years modified their foreign policies to focus on economic and trade issues. Africa’s economic diplomacy will be dramatically shaped by the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) negotiations that will conclude in 2017. This builds on the Tripartite Free Trade Area covering 26 countries with 650 million people and a GDP of US$1.5 trillion. The CFTA will comprise a billion people with an initial GDP of $3 trillion. The foundations of the agreement include free trade, infrastructure development and industrialisation. This is a grand opportunity that will shape Africa’s relationships with the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.
Overlooking the doomsday scenarios, long-term perspectives reveal new opportunities to align UK and EU diplomacy with Africa’s economic optimism, which is increasingly guided by the desire to put innovation and entrepreneurship at the centre of the continent’s transformation. Failure to grasp this salient point will result in the squandering of a historic opportunity to reshape Africa-Europe relations in light of 21st century realities.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2016 issue of Europe’s World.