I will be seeing many gloomy faces around the table in some meetings I will be attending in the UK in the next couple of days and months. The outcome of the EU-membership referendum is totally unexpected and therefore shocking. The deed has been done. Prime Minister David Cameron took the greatest political gamble of his life. He took the risk to derive political advantage and he has failed embarrassingly and woefully. It is therefore right, in my view, that he should resign and allow someone else to navigate the messy process that will eventually exit the UK from the EU. What we have seen played out here is the clash of two different generations – the older, what I would call the “Empire Generation”, who still look at the United Kingdom as if she’s still the colonial, imperial power of the past, dominating the entire world. The flag-waving “Rule Britannia” generation who prefer their island mentality and would like the UK to be truly “independent” and have nothing to do with Brussels that they so much loath and view with contempt for wanting to impose a federal system on them, which they detest and believe has no relevance, and of no use to them in today’s world. This generation voted unequivocally to exit, not necessarily having given a serious thought to the consequences of their action. That might only just be dawning on them now after the deed has been done! Whereas the younger generation and the more educated ones prefers to be in Europe because of the advantages, especially of Globalisation, and realising that their island nation-state of only about 65 million people, in this time and age, cannot afford to continue to be an island on its own – it has to reach out, engage diplomatically, relate and trade with other nations around the world. I believe Britain will on the long term survive the attendant repercussions or consequences of the decision it has taken to leave the EU. The country was not entirely taken by surprise with the decision to leave. For instance, it has, for sometime now, been working on contingency plans on what to do if the votes should go against remaining in the EU. Immigration staffs, for instance, have, for sometime now, been going through retraining on new approach to immigration if the decision is to exit – a decisive factor in the way they voted. For what you may or may not know, if passports will have to be changed when the UK finally leaves the EU, one should not the surprised if the design of the new UK passport is now ready and only waiting to go to the printers. They are that well organised and leaving nothing to chances. And we have already heard from the proactive Governor of the Bank of England that a contingency plan had been in place in anticipation that the decision might be against remaining, which has been rolled out immediately the decision was known and confirmed. So I have no doubt that things will stabilise in the course of days, weeks and months to come.
For us in Africa, especially Nigeria, the UK exiting from the EU could have both positive and negative repercussions or consequences. When Prime Minister Ted Heath took the UK into what used to be known as the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, all powers pertaining to UK’s trade relations with the rest of the world were transferred to Brussels, and the UK started losing interest in its traditional allies in Africa and the Commonwealth generally. It started trading and investing more with her European cousins in the EEC than it used to with her old allies in Africa and the Commonwealth. Even if the UK had, for old time sake, wanted to continue trading directly with Africa and the Commonwealth after joining the EEC, it no longer could do that because it had surrendered that power and authority to the EEC. The only way it could work for the UK to continue trading indirectly with Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Commonwealth was the signing by the EEC of the Lome Convention, updated in the Cotonou Agreement and later the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). Therefore, exiting the EU in about two years time might help to reverse this situation. And here lies the opportunity for Africa to strike new trading deals with the UK directly, because by the time it leaves the EU in two years time it would, as a country now on its own, have no trade agreement with any country in Africa or anywhere in the world for that matter! The UK would now have to start all over again and be able to decide on its own who it would like to trade with, on what terms and not having to go through the bureaucracies of the EU trading bloc.
Therefore, there are very serious consequences for Africa arising from UK’s exit from the EU. The continent now has at most two years to put new policies in place to deal with these consequences. For instance, Africa too can trade directly with the UK as it used to without going through the EU.
Another advantage to Africa, apart from the fact that it would now have an opportunity to negotiate afresh new trade terms with the UK, is that the continent can still trade as economic/trading blocs – ECOWAS, SADC, etc. – directly with the EU as it does presently, and encouraged to do by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Specifically, Nigeria should be delighted it still hasn’t signed the controversial Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU despite the fact that most of ECOWAS have been bamboozled to sign. Now that Nigeria’s most influential ally in the EU will now be exiting the organisation, that EPA, it would seem, is now dead and buried. President Muhammadu Buhari would have been ill advised if he were to sign it in its present form. Nigeria (and indeed ECOWAS) should take advantage of the crisis within the EU as a result of UK’s imminent exit to negotiate a new trade agreement with the EU – maybe a preferential trade agreement. And, on the other hand, negotiate new trade terms directly with the UK when it eventually leaves the EU. Win-Win situation one might say for Nigeria, and indeed, Africa and the Commonwealth. On the down side, the UK exiting from the EU means that Nigeria, Africa and the Commonwealth have lost a very powerful ally and perhaps most influential voice that can speak on their behalf within the EU! And that is sad! Only two Commonwealth countries now remain as members of the EU – Cyprus and Malta – and even when lumped up together, and Malta soon take the rotational presidency of the EU, they still don’t have the gravitas and influence of the UK and therefore can’t speak effectively for Africa and the Commonwealth within the EU. But to compensate for that the UK must now have to take the Commonwealth, especially its African members, more seriously because the 52-nation Commonwealth constitute one-third of membership of the United Nations (UN). The importance of having such bloc in the UN as ally cannot be lost on the UK. The UK will need Africa and the Commonwealth as allies in the UN especially in times of trouble like this. On a final note, the decision to exit the EU, as we have seen, would inevitably thrust on the UK a new political leadership. That, in itself, might not necessarily be a bad thing – even though it was unplanned for. It is a big risk and serious gamble that the UK took, especially when one is reminded that the decision might have the added unpleasant repercussion of Scotland gaining independence and eventually leaving the UK itself – the Scots and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. If Scotland should break away as it is threatening, that will be the end of the United Kingdom itself, leaving us only with Great Britain – possibly without the “Great”. But let us make no mistake about it; whether as UK or Britain, the “Brits” will still remain a powerful and influential political, economic and military powerhouse, traditional ally and friend to have. The next few months and years will be very fascinating in the UK and Europe.
KAYODE SOYINKA. Publisher, Africa Today.