Post-Brexit, where next for EU development policy?

Friday 15 July 2016

A blog by Patrick Watt, Global Campaign and Advocacy Director, Save the Children International

Three weeks after the Brexit referendum, and with a new Prime Minister installed in 10 Downing St, there are still many more questions than answers about the likely contours of a post-EU relationship between the UK and Europe, and the implications for UK government policy. Some of these questions were usefully laid out this week in this blog by Owen Barder, of the Centre for Global Development, looking at the possible impact of Brexit on the UK’s approach to international development.

What’s been less widely discussed is what Britain’s exit from the EU might mean for the development approach of the rest of Europe. The effects could be far-reaching, and potentially negative for millions of people in the world’s poorest countries.

If the Franco-German relationship has historically been the motor of European integration, then the Anglo-French axis has underpinned EU development policy. Amongst European countries it is Britain and France that are most strongly oriented towards Africa and Asia – for good and ill – and it’s these two countries alone that have a genuinely global foreign policy, drawing on their security council membership and status as diplomatic powers.

Since the UK joined what was then the EEC, both European aid and trade policy has been firmly anchored by this Anglo-French axis. The preferential trade deal with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, most of them former British and French colonies, as part of the ‘Cotonou agreement’ is a case in point. Critics of Cotonou will question how many benefits it has really delivered for partner countries. But what’s clear is that when it comes up for renegotiation in 2020, the dynamics will be very different without Britain in the EU, and there will likely be less pressure for a preferential outcome.

Similarly, we can expect that – with the UK out – the line taken by the EU on global public goods, including climate change, will be less influenced by the perspective of low-income countries in Africa and Asia, and of small island nations. Again, some critics will question whether the UK really has been a consistently progressive advocate for developing countries’ interests (foot-dragging on tackling illicit financial flows being just one example). But few other EU member states draw on the same breadth of global networks, or depth of analysis, when formulating policy, or have the same convening power. And as the Sustainable Development Goals agenda moves into implementation phase, the UK’s voice will be missed in Brussels – a concern given the EU’s slow uptake of the global goals as an organising framework.

An EU without Britain will shift its centre of gravity, with Eastern and Southern European voices becoming relatively more influential. As a result, foreign policy and development challenges from near-neighbours - in North Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union - threaten to eclipse engagement with the wider world. Already, the Eurozone and migrant crises are causing the EU to expend a huge amount of political energy looking inward. EU High Representative Mogherini’s Global Strategy, whose recent launch was overshadowed by the June 24 referendum, already demonstrates how concerns about security and stability in Europe are threatening to dictate and narrow foreign policy and funding choices. Until 2018 at the earliest, Brexit is only likely to exacerbate this trend.

With Britain leaving the EU, the impacts on European aid could also be profound. The UK is one of just four EU member states meeting the international target of giving 0.7% of national income in aid. With the UK out, 0.7% risks becoming a Scandinavian quirk, as France and Germany backpedal on their own aid promises. At a more immediate level, the UK currently contributes $1.5bn a year to the EC aid budget. Brexit will leave other net contributors to the EU to pick up more of the bill, with the risk that both development and emergency aid volumes will dip significantly. In recent years, roughly one-fifth of humanitarian aid channelled through ECHO has come from the UK. Of course, the UK may continue to give that money through its own bilateral aid channels. But either way the economies of scale achieved through ECHO will be affected.

Many of these risks are difficult to quantify at a point when the UK’s negotiations with the EU haven’t even begun. But what is clear is that EU’s engagement with the rest of the world will look different once the UK has left. A shrivelled European development policy is not inevitable. But progressive voices across Europe need to make the case much more clearly for an intensified effort to promote peace, prosperity and environmental sustainability beyond its borders – and start to shift the debate in national capitals as well as in Brussels. If they don’t, the EU’s global relevance risks being greatly diminished, with the cost falling most heavily on millions of people in the poorest countries.


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