The international community remains in turbulence, but of special significance to SA — itself not without challenges — is the worrying state of affairs in Europe. While SA is wisely trying to diversify its international partnerships, those with Europe, especially the  EU, remain of special relevance, economic matters in particular.

Most African countries have especially meaningful historical relationships with the former European colonial powers, the UK in the case of SA and many others, but also France for much of the rest of the continent. In this context Brexit is of major relevance to Africa, and particularly SA with its stronger economy and more diversified interface with the EU and UK alike.

SA is the only African country to have a strategic partnership relationship with the EU

It is bad enough that Brexit is destabilising Europe, but there is legitimate concern that it will also damage the global economy, with especially negative results for the overall geopolitical strategic position of the West. Africa could be the region outside Europe that is worst affected by this geopolitical turbulence and collateral damage. These are challenges for all sectors of SA society, but especially the business sector.

It is in the best interests of SA business to improve its abilities to understand, co-ordinate and negotiate its international contextual position, which has special relevance for EU, with all its complexities. Various factors have contributed to this situation, but with Brexit the complexities of the EU-UK-SA-Africa relationship are even more dynamic than usual and becoming even more complex, with added regional and global dimensions.

 Tuesday’s UK parliamentary vote on Brexit was another step in an ongoing process, with the final result still to be fully concluded. Some commentators maintain that regardless of what happens, the UK-SA relationship will remain an important one, with possible growth in trade and investment as an outcome of Brexit. But whatever the outcome, a post-Brexit UK will have challenges on many fronts and will not necessarily be in as strong a position as it was. The EU will also be a different beast to that with which SA has dealt in the past.

While SA, along with much of Anglophone Africa and many Indian Ocean littoral states such as India, will probably be a major focus of British attention after Brexit, depending on the final terms of the deal Britain’s ability to take unilateral and immediate actions may be limited. Nothing is a given, but if the UK does remain in a customs union with the EU the current EU economic arrangements with SA could continue to exist. This would influence the new UK-SA relationship, possibly without the UK being in a position to use its traditional Southern Africa-supportive stance to influence EU decisions. This would soon become evident for SA in a variety of ways, so SA should seek to reinforce the strong interactive relationship built with EU decision-makers in recent years.

Brexit comes at a time when the EU-African partnership is being redesigned, with the thrust having largely come from the EU, made all the more necessary by factors ranging from geopolitical security to the need to strengthen and otherwise enhance EU-African economic relations.

The need for the EU to revise the existing format of EU economic partnership agreements (EPAs) with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) grouping of countries, including all of sub-Saharan Africa, is urgent because in the light of Africa’s new continental free trade agreement it is outdated and unrealistic in many respects. Adding to uncertainties is that the ACP, a primary framework for relations between the EU and sub-Saharan Africa, will end in 2020 with a future format still be to be finalised.

At the AU-EU summit of November 2017 both sides agreed to strengthen their partnership with action for a stronger economic agenda. In September 2018 the EU Commission unveiled a new Africa-Europe alliance for sustainable investment and jobs. Its agenda includes the strengthening of trade alongside EU investments in education and skills. The latter was hardly mentioned in the SA media but was given much prominence inside the EU and many other African countries.

The EU-Southern African Development Community (Sadc) EPA, which includes SA, was provisionally implemented in October 2016 and regulates SA-EU economic relations. It has generally been seen as a success and relevant for broader application in Africa. It is a platform, albeit not a perfect one for some, to be utilised for creating and accessing opportunities of relevance to Southern Africa and SA, but much remains to be done.

On February 19, 2019 the first meeting of the joint council of the EU-Sadc EPA was held in Cape Town at ministerial level, a milestone for the Southern Africa-EU partnership. The goals of the new Africa-Europe Alliance were mentioned in a joint communiqué, along with the need to enhance sanitary as well as phyto-sanitary and other measures to allow improved implementation of the EPA.

Improving such measures is among the best examples of how SA can use opportunities for constructive co-operation offered by the EU for SA’s own benefit and in a regional context. For example, SA has issues to overcome with regard to exports of meat products into the EU, and doing so will help prevent the domestic re-occurrence of food-related diseases such as listeriosis and food and mouth.

SA is the only African country to have a strategic partnership relationship with the EU. After a gap of some years the seventh summit of the SA-EU strategic partnership was held in Brussels in November 2018, with President Cyril Ramaphosa using the occasion to also address the European Parliament. This, along with the other factors mentioned above, such as the EPA and SA’s qualified participation in the ACP, seemingly give SA exceptionally good opportunities to provide innovative leadership in the EU-Africa partnership.

The upcoming SA chairing of the AU and membership of the UN Security Council amplify the opportunities for SA at a time when such enhanced co-operation could not only help offset negative fallout for Africa resulting from Brexit but also contribute positively towards other aspects of the global situation.

SA must try to enhance the utilisation of its geopolitical position, not only in Africa but elsewhere too. The EU-Africa scenario offers an urgent opportunity to achieve this, as well as opportunities for practising co-ordinated multistakeholder engagement on international and national issues. As such, the EU-UK-Africa relationship could offer unique opportunities for innovative forms of SA leadership and activities.

• Dr Maré, a former SA diplomat, is an adviser on international public affairs and diplomacy.