Finding a new point of departure for the future of UK-EU development cooperation after Brexit

On Tuesday 15 January, the draft withdrawal agreement – the result of 18 months of intense negotiations between British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and the European Union – was flatly rejected by the UK Parliament. This also appeared to be the nail in the coffin for the related draft Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK (known as the ‘Political Declaration’) that had been approved by the European heads of state at the special Summit last November, and which contains clear provisions relevant for development cooperation.

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    The situation may now evolve to either of three major endpoints: (i) a no deal Brexit; (ii) a new deal, most likely similar to the old deal (unless the UK softens some of its red lines opening the way for a fuller customs union type arrangement bringing it closer to the EU); or (iii) a revocation of the decision to leave the EU, most likely after a referendum (should the UK finally end up remaining in the EU, not everything would remain the same).

    The future of EU-UK relations, including on cooperation on development, has thus become more uncertain than ever. Furthermore, international development cooperation has not yet been considered a priority at the ‘top table’ of the negotiations and it is unlikely that it will be considered as such now, despite the fact that some of the poorest and most vulnerable globally may suffer the fallout. The UK (along with France, Germany and the European Commission) was one of the ‘big four’ shaping EU development policy and aid spending. During 2017, it spent US$ 18.103 million on official development assistance (ODA) meeting the 0.7% benchmark that the UK law commits to spending on ODA. This amount is also greater than that sum spent by the EU institutions on ODA in the same year (US$16.440 million). This gives an idea of the weight the UK has as a global development actor.

    What is now the point of departure for discussions on a future UK-EU development cooperation relationship?

    Should the draft Political Declaration simply be dismissed and quietly forgotten? Although this document has now lost political clout, we think that it remains a valid point of departure to discuss EU-UK synergies on development cooperation, especially if a withdrawal deal can be reached. Unless the UK creates ill-will by the way in which it would leave the EU, this document constitutes a valid basis for these discussions.

    Because of the uncertainty that has tainted UK-EU negotiations over the Kingdom’s departure from the Union since the very beginning, ECDPM has consistently emphasised two points concerning the future of UK-EU relations and international cooperation, most recently in a brief submitted to the UK House of Lords. The first is that the debate about international development cooperation must be held beyond the ‘EU-UK story’ and should be enriched through consultations with countries in the Global South, in light of the principle of domestic ownership. These countries risk being most affected by a disruption in EU-UK development cooperation collaboration. Second, policymakers should opt for long-term thinking. Constructive discussions over a particular meaningful EU-UK project, to be kicked off as soon as the dust settles, could help achieve both goals.

    On development cooperation, the draft Political Declaration reflects the two requirements of long-term thinking and of domestic ownership in the specifics and comes closest to what the UK expected from the EU: it echoes some of the clear requests made by the UK in the course of 2018. Also, crucially, it has already been agreed at the highest EU level, so will be a point of reference to the EU side.

    It would be a mistake to ignore the past decades of UK integration into the EU, and of collaboration between the UK and the EU in multilateral settings. The draft Political Declaration preserves and upholds the shared commitment to sustainable development and to the eradication of poverty, in light of the SDGs and the European Consensus for Development (art. 93). Together with the commitment to working together in international fora such as the G7 and G20 (as art. 77 suggests), this document could secure future collaboration on the basis of shared history, values and norms. It is in the interest of all parties, and also of developing countries, to benefit from the leap forward that the EU and the UK had taken in the Declaration.

    The document refers to concrete modes of collaboration on development between the UK and the EU, beyond mere consultation. It encourages “flexible and scalable cooperation” (art. 94), and the UK can even co-manage EU programmes (art. 11). It states that the UK “could contribute to the Union’s instruments and mechanisms, including coordination with the Union’s delegations in third countries” (art. 99). Finally, it takes note of the UK’s “intention to explore options for a future relationship with the European Investment Bank”, under which a development branch may be created in the future.

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

    Since the Brexit referendum, there has not been any other example of a public document that has been agreed at the highest political level, and that is so open to combining EU and UK expertise, money and human resources on development in third countries. The draft Political Declaration promotes dialogue, leaves the door open for financing by the UK, and envisages some methods of collaboration (among the many options), all the while fully recognising that the EU and the UK will “shape and pursue their foreign policies according to their respective strategies and security interests”.

    As both the UK and EU aspirations on development cooperation are reflected in the draft Political Declaration, there is little reason, either for the EU or for the UK, to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, if the UK will leave, it should be on grounds from which to build a future relationship, not a ceiling that cannot be breached.

    The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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