Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

We are a far cry from the 1800s and the so-called glory days of the British Empire, but sentimentality over “making Britain great again” fuelled the British vote to exit the EU.

Prime Minister Theresa May is fashioning the country’s new image as a “Global Britain” — one that is independent from its EU history and that will result in Britain becoming a global power in its own right. But recent developments — including May’s inability to secure the majority in parliament needed to drive a “hard” Brexit deal — have cast doubt not only on Britain’s successful exit from the EU, but also on its future role as a global leader.

The Commonwealth is popularly associated with the Commonwealth Games and scholarships offered to citizens of member states. However, the Commonwealth Secretariat also co-ordinates co-operation in the political sphere through its heads of government meetings and implements socioeconomic development initiatives in a select group of African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Beyond this, there has been little to bind Britain’s former colonies.

Britain’s renewed interest in the Commonwealth poses questions as to how it could cement the grouping as a recognised unit in the international arena.

In some cases, the relationship is more established than others. For example, Britain is SA’s seventh-largest trading partner and SA, at 30%, is the largest recipient of foreign direct investment in Africa, with a particular focus on mining and financial services. The UK also receives 30% of SA’s fruit exports and 25% of its wine exports.

In comparison, some Caribbean countries benefit from socioeconomic development projects that are partnerships between the Commonwealth Secretariat, the ACP Secretariat and the EU. For these states, Brexit spells uncertainty about the continuation of such benefits, predominantly because their relations with the EU have always existed through Britain.

Britain should be cautious about using the Commonwealth as a tool for its own gain. With the increasing popularity of regional memberships and newer political groupings such as the Brics, the Commonwealth’s usefulness beyond sports events and academic scholarships remains questionable. The group’s political dynamics have also changed: countries such as New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Singapore are economically developed; others such as India are emerging middle-income powers in their own right; and least-developed countries such as Tanzania continue to enjoy impressive growth rates through a variety of development partners.

Britain would be mistaken to assume that Commonwealth countries would be interested in engaging with it without any concrete gains for themselves, such as equitable trade and investment relations.

The country should also be cautious of pursuing a total leadership approach within the Secretariat and playing off its prominence in the Commonwealth against the EU, which remains a vital trade and investment partner through the EU-ACP Cotonou Agreement. That agreement expires in 2020, and dialogues are already under way to negotiate a comprehensive replacement. The EU envisages an umbrella agreement among ACP countries that is based on shared values and interests, and that facilitates international trade. This would be combined with tailored agreements between the EU and ACP regional economic blocs. The question is whether Britain will be able to offer similar or better deals to its former colonies than Cotonou’s replacement.

For some ACP countries, Britain has been instrumental in maintaining links with Europe. Brexit could spell disaster for their trade relations with the EU, as well as the benefits they receive from EU-UK development projects.

In a post-Cotonou, post-Brexit world, the UK should champion causes that are important to the ACP group: food security, climate change and infrastructure.

By focusing on issues that have stagnated at bilateral and multilateral levels of discussion, Britain could enhance its post-EU prestige. Championing issues that are relevant to developing countries would help it appear as an equal partner to its former colonies.

Whether the Commonwealth can be used to escalate Britain’s prominence depends largely on whether Britain’s economic strength deteriorates as a result of a harmful divorce from the EU.

The loss of London’s prominence as the European financial hub could prove extremely expensive, and could adversely affect the country’s cross-border banking activities, which have recently expanded into Africa, particularly SA. In recent years, the UK’s development assistance in Africa has moved beyond poverty reduction to include investments in businesses and research and development, as well as in deeper diplomatic engagements. An expensive withdrawal from the EU could also result in budget and personnel cuts to the UK’s department for international development, which would affect assistance to ACP countries. In short, a politically difficult and financially burdensome split with the EU would negatively affect African-UK relations and Britain’s ability to position itself as a post-Brexit global leader.

African countries could use Britain’s experiences to improve trade relations among themselves, as well as increase self-reliance through higher tax revenues, reducing sovereign debt and capitalising on remittances.

In reality, the UK’s days of being a global superpower are long gone, as is much of the UK’s international clout, which was vested in its EU membership. The political stability that once underscored British politics is also deteriorating. The country’s ability to leverage the Commonwealth as a viable diplomatic and trade interlocutor is dependent on it becoming an independent leader outside the EU — which is not guaranteed.

If nothing else, Brexit gives Africa the opportunity to reduce its dependence on its former colonial master and strive for a partnership that is more prominent than it has been before.

* Parshotam is a researcher in the economic diplomacy programme at the SA Institute of International Affairs

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