“Get Brexit Done” was the Conservative Party’s election-winning slogan last month. Formally, that objective has been achieved. But what does that mean for international development—for aid, humanitarian relief, trade, security, migration, climate change, and beyond? Last week we gave evidence to the House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee on development cooperation after Brexit. Below we sketch out some of our key discussion points.
The UK and the EU can turn their backs, walk away, and work with other partners. For the UK the potential dance card has many names: the World Bank, the UN, the regional development banks, the Commonwealth, even the WTO and NATO. But the EU should have a primary place. Both the UK and the EU separately are amongst the largest development spenders and influencers in the world. Both will be severely weakened if they are not able to benefit from each other’s ecosystem of development influence, expertise and resources.
The obstacles to closer cooperation are not trivial. In particular, the EU does not make it easy for third countries, as the UK will be, to participate in development programmes. In the case of humanitarian aid, for example, the current regulations specify that NGOs that wish to receive money from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) must sign Framework Partnership Agreements. This is a modality only open to those whose main headquarters are in an EU country. That rules out most smaller UK NGOs, and those not part of international alliances like Save the Children International or Oxfam International. Similarly, for development aid, UK institutions are able to access EU funding, but only for certain categories of countries. The EU does itself no favours by imposing restrictions of this kind. It should follow best practice as laid down by the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, and “untie” all aid.
What are the UK’s other options?
There are other opportunities open to the UK after Brexit, but with further problems. Third countries can contribute to EU development finance instruments, such as EU Trust Funds (for example, the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which is active on tackling the root causes of migration), the European Fund for Sustainable Development (the EU’s external investment instrument offering blended finance and guarantees), or through processes such as delegated cooperation. However, all these entail management and coordination by the Commission, compliance with EU Regulations and contracting procedures, oversight by the European Parliament and/or the EU Court of Auditors, and are subject to the ultimate authority of the European Court of Justice. The UK might conceivably put a small amount of money on the table, but it is hard to imagine any British Minister signing up to substantial funding on these terms.
Better options are needed. That is because the EU and the UK have much more than a narrow, instrumental interest in avoiding stamping on each other’s feet. Both are large players in development, committed to the SDGs and to other global agreements, like the Paris agreement on climate change. Both have a variety of assets, including money, but also defence and diplomacy instruments. Both have a long history of work in development, supported by universities, research institutes, think tanks and NGOs. And they each bring elements of comparative geographical advantage, which complement each other: the EU in West Africa, the Sahel, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Western Balkans; the UK in Commonwealth countries. There is inevitable competition—for example, with respect to private sector opportunities in Africa. But competition in some areas does not preclude cooperation overall.
Global Britain needs the EU. By the same token, the EU needs Global Britain.
Two options for the future
The first is foreseen in the Political Declaration which accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement: an ambitious and wide-ranging partnership. This can be done by agreeing on shared objectives and by committing significant resources of money and other resources. Implementation would be independent: UK contracting and accountability for UK contributions, EU contracting and accountability for EU contributions. This is the partnership of the tennis court or the bridge table: two organisms working as one.
The second option is a UK-specific and jointly-owned EU Trust Fund. The Commission could establish an off-budget, jointly funded, co-chaired, jointly administered and jointly decided EU/UK facility, focused on a set number of countries of strategic interest to the UK that are also supported by the EU development programme. This would allow the UK to have direct discretion and control over development spending, whilst indirectly shaping the broader EU development programme. From the EU’s perspective, it would keep the UK closely linked and increase its own firepower, without compromising existing structures.
Whichever option is chosen, the first step should be to focus on the priorities and to offer leadership. The SDGs provide an overall framing, but there are urgent needs within the frame. Peace, stability, and development in fragile states is a priority for both parties, in the Middle East, West Africa and the Sahel, but also in the Mediterranean and other hot spots (such as Somalia and Afghanistan). Climate change is another hot topic, particularly with the UK hosting the climate talks in Glasgow later this year, and with the EU having just agreed its Green Deal. Climate action is far from being an internal issue for either the UK or the EU. Emerging economies also need a just transition, and there are spill-overs across national borders: witness the EU’s urgent work on carbon border taxes.
Creating a new partnership requires bold action by both the EU and the UK. Big offers need to be made, with billions not millions on the table, and policy options to match. And time is short. The EU will soon begin to programme its resources under the Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2021-2027. The UK will begin to re-allocate the £1.5 billion a year it spends through the EU (though current commitments mean that will be a slower process). Both sides are re-writing their migration policies. Both are committing to new research programmes. Both have an urgent interest in peace and reconstruction in Syria and elsewhere.
So, if Brexit is done and the question is “What’s next?,” the answer is, “Start talking and get to work.”
Simon Maxwell is a senior research associate at ODI and former Chair of the European Think Tanks Group. You can read his 27 Theses for a European Re-Formation here.