By Ole Tangen Jr
African countries have long been political and economic partners with both the UK and the EU. After the Brexit vote, experts on both sides are unsure how trade and relations will now unfold.
Many Africans were surprised to wake up on Friday (24.06.2016) to the news that the UK will be leaving the European Union. Many African nations have long histories with the UK and there is concern because the UK is a key trading partner.
News of the Brexit vote rattled local markets and currencies forcing regulators and politicians into crisis mode. The UK is Kenya’s third largest export market and a key ally.
“The Central Bank of Kenya stands ready to intervene in the money and foreign exchange markets to ensure their smooth operation,” the bank said in a statement.
South African President Jacob Zuma said that his country was in a good position to deal with any issues which will arise in the aftermath of the vote. The rand fell 8 percent after the results of the Brexit vote were released.
“We are therefore confident that our financial system including the banks and the regulatory framework are extremely resilient and reliable,” said Zuma in a statement issued by the presidency.
Leaders on the continent stress that they respect the will of the people in the UK.
“It’s the sovereign will of the English people, who made their choice,” said Ulisses Correia e Silva, the Prime Minister Cape Verde. “But we are certain that the European Union will find appropriate solutions so the European project can continue.”
Wide swathes of the African continent fell under British rule during the colonial era. Countries, including Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, gained their independence from the UK after World War II, mostly during the 1960s.
Ties with the UK did not end there. 18 African nations remain members of the Commonwealth headed by Queen Elisabeth II. Membership in the Commonwealth offers some political and economic advantages to countries as well as capacity building opportunities. Citizens of Commonwealth countries living in the UK were allowed to vote in the referendum.
“The British government will be looking at how to deepen other networks and the Commonwealth is one thing that the Conservative government here in the UK has said it wants to rebuild and strengthen,” Alex Vines, the head of the Africa program at Chatham House in London, told DW.
Many African leaders, including Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, have been proponents of pan-Africanism, a principle for greater political and economic cooperation both among the continent’s countries. This has led to the creation of regional economic communities (REC) including the East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the South African Development Community (SADC). Those three RECs include 34 of Africa’s 53 countries.
Some observers are concerned that Brexit will introduce a measure of doubt into the modern ideas of pan-Africanism and of forming blocks of nations that may draw their inspiration from the EU.
Vines is not sure whether the upcoming Conservative government will continue with the current government’s significant development assistance to African RECs.
“At a pan-African level, I think it will complicate things,” he said.
The European Union has negotiated and signed numerous Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with African countries which seek through trade and investment to attain sustainable development and poverty reduction. Billions of euros of aid are also sent by the EU to African countries to promote development, democratization and poverty reduction. EU member states also offer military aid to some countries, including Mali and Somalia, in order to combat Islamist terrorism.
Having left the EU, the UK would have to renegotiate over 100 trade agreements around the world and this would take time. This is a concern for South Africans who has long been a strong trading partner with the UK.
Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures & Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, thinks that there are some simple solutions to the issue of trade agreements.
“The UK could simply legalize existing trade agreements between South Africa and the EU but it is unclear how and if that will happen,” he said.
As the UK is the first country to leave the EU, the way forward remains unclear.
“The biggest questions are what will happen to the British economy and the British pound,” said Cilliers. “And in South Africa for example, how will this affect not just trade but tourism.”