Letter from the United Kingdom
The Brexit Party won the election to the European Parliament in the UK. And we have a race underway for a new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party – a race in which ‘hard’ or no deal Brexit features prominently. Many commentators think that the political situation in the UK bodes ill for future collaboration with the EU, never mind future membership. Our partnership in international development could be a victim.
On the other hand, there is a silver lining in the Brexit mess. It is that our collective national breakdown has revealed a hitherto hidden well of emotional attachment to Europe and to the EU. Over a million of us marched in London at the end of March, in favour of Remain. Over six million signed a petition in favour of revoking Article 50. And pro-Remain parties performed well in the election. Certainly, at the march, there were enough EU flags, and enough blue and gold face paint, to suggest a real affection.
That is a bit of a surprise. It has often been argued that the UK differs from other Member States in its attitude to the EU.
For the Continental Members, and no doubt for Ireland, membership has been seen as a matter of values, a matter of culture, a question of identity. This is deeply rooted in memories of war and dislocation, in physical proximity, in family ties, and now in shared institutions. The EU is often the default.
For the UK, membership has been seen as more instrumental, a question of calculus, part of a complex web of international alliances, in which political capital is deployed according to the objective being pursued. In that vision, the EU is not always the right answer: sometimes, NATO might be the better option, or the UN, or the Commonwealth. And sometimes, including with respect to aid, it is better to act bilaterally.
Certainly, calculus has been strongly in evidence in the UK’s approach to working with the EU on international development, including after Brexit. In a succession of policy papers and ministerial statements during the past year, the UK has been keen to explore in what areas the EU Institutions might have comparative advantage, compared, say, to the World Bank or the UN. Humanitarian aid has featured, and peace-keeping, and migration. The UK has consistently emphasised value for money. It has also wanted to make sure it has a seat at the table and a voice in decision-making.
Probably none of that will change if the UK leaves or stays. Indeed, nor should it. Comparative advantage, value for money and voice are all important. But might the pendulum shift gently towards culture, and would it make a difference if it did? Of course, the popular mood is one thing, and the political process is, or can be, quite another. But there may be some interesting options.
Development cooperation cannot stand still. The recent foresight study published for the EU by ESPAS, the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System, points clearly to a world well on its way to a ‘new geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-technological order‘: demography, urbanisation, technical change, and environmental pressure will all play their part.
In this context, the Sustainable Development Goals provide an inspiring vision of ‘the world we want’, but not necessarily a high resolution road map. Development leaders will need to step away from ticking off individual, aid-funded SDG programmes. They have already begun to do so.
The EU’s Global Strategy, for example, already in 2016, emphasised the importance of integrated approaches. In the UK also, new cross-government funds have been created, for example to deal with conflict and security, and with climate change. Both the EU and the UK have supported the institutions of global governance, for example on climate change. Both have invested heavily in global research. In both cases, poverty reduction is enshrined in law as the ultimate goal of development policy – and will need to be achieved in new ways. These common interests provide the foundation for a productive future partnership.
If the UK leaves the EU, at least with a deal, there will continue to be aid payments to the EU of something like £1.5 billion a year into the mid-2020s, reflecting past commitments to the current Multi-Annual Financial Framework and European Development Fund. A shift in the narrative might see those used as a platform to build further cooperative relationships, either in parallel or by means of direct contributions to Trust Funds and similar instruments. Maybe Ministers will be found looking for ways to strengthen the EU’s voice as a major pillar of the development system. After all, the EU institutions spend more on aid than the World Bank, and almost as much as the whole of the UN.
If the UK stays, a more ambitious landscape opens up. A new Commission will be appointed in 2019, able to set a new course – and equally important make a new case to the public. The Multi-Annual Financial Framework will be agreed, setting spending limits, including for external action, to 2027. New trade negotiations will begin. More ambitious climate targets will be set. New partnerships will be put in place, not least with Africa. The UK has a track record in all these areas.
A UK motivated by a bit more ‘culture’ as well as its traditional ‘calculus’ could lead the EU in shaping this exciting agenda. At the London march, and also at two marches in 2018, I wore a tee shirt and carried a placard with the following slogan: ‘Global Britain Needs EU Needs Global Britain’. Calculus – and culture.
About the author
Former Chair, European Think Tanks Group (2015-19)