Brexit: What's in it for Africa?

It is well known how the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidises EU farmers creating hurdles to competition, along with tariff barriers that make it very hard for an African farmer to compete in European markets.

Because of this, a London-based Ugandan by the name Sam Akaki and his organisation, Democratic Institution for Poverty Reduction in Africa, has been urging African-Britons to vote for Britain’s exit (Brexit) from the EU.

Britain is set to hold a referendum in June on whether or not to remain in the EU. Broadly speaking, the referendum will help decide the future political and economic character of the United Kingdom and the European Union.

The issues range from economic governance, immigration and welfare benefits to competitiveness. But no one is quite sure what will happen if the UK leaves the EU.

Proponents for Britain remaining in the EU, spearheaded by Prime Minister David Cameron, believe that the UK “will be safer, we will be stronger, and we will be better off inside the EU,” and Brexit will only offer the “illusion of sovereignty” and be a huge “leap in the dark.”

Others such as the Tory politician Andrew Mitchell argue that Brexit is about sovereignty; that Britain would survive outside the EU.

“We would govern ourselves without constant petty interference from a European political elite that, like all political elites, is forever seeking greater power and authority. The world is moving to a freer trading regime, and protectionism is declining and discredited.”

It is mainly drawing from Mitchell’s assertion of declining and discredited protectionism that Akaki is of the view is that Brexit is the way to go “in order to enable the mother continent to negotiate more equitable trading agreements with the UK.”

Writing in The Guardian, he makes a plea against insensitive EU trade practices that make it impossible for Africa to trade itself out of poverty.

I would not grudge Akaki for his opinion, but I am doubtful of the presumption Brexit would lead Africa to “equitable trading agreements with the UK”.

If Brexit came to be, my bet would be Britain would have to compete with the EU, with UK not likely able to unilaterally remove farming subsidies. For political and economic reasons, neither Britain nor the EU would agree to a mutually hurtful position.

Political expediency demands that they most likely would come to a certain understanding as concerns their respective constituents. It would not be the first time this would happen on issues of mutual concern in the West to the exclusion of the South.  

But there’s a better argument, as the Foreign Affairsmagazine has observed: British influence and prosperity are significantly enhanced by membership in the EU.

On its own, UK accounts for less than one per cent of the global population, and roughly three per cent of the world’s GDP. In trade negotiations, the United Kingdom’s bargaining position is enhanced by being part of the European Union, which is the world’s largest trading bloc and accounts for some 20 per cent of global GDP.

Brussels, it is argued, would not be averse to tough negotiating when this is necessary to secure key terms and conditions.  

In this view, indications are that Brexit may not come to pass, albeit with a slim margin, according analysts. But the situation is still young.

So, what’s in Brexit for Africa? Perhaps nothing – as long as the continent does not unite, and, in some way, challenge international trade regimes that continue to work against it.

Yet, there is a lesson in there somewhere for the East African Community. Speaking for his country, former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is quoted as saying, “our role in Europe magnifies the power of our ideas, and strengthens our international clout” across the world.

Working as a bloc, as the EAC strives to integrate and bring in more members, is the way to go.

The European Union offers a template of possible triumphs, hazards and potential pitfalls, of which there are many to learn from.