Photograph — International Business Times

Last Wednesday, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May activated Article 50 of the European Union, a process which actively commenced the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), infamously known as “Brexit.” This process is set to take at least 2 years to complete, making it one of the longest divorces in history.

A referendum held in June of 2016, to determine whether the UK should remain in the European Union, or leave, ended in a win for the “Leave” voters, fast-tracking the reversal of decades of British integration into the European nations’ bloc. This referendum also installed Theresa May as UK’s second female prime minister in its history. Many called it an unwise move from the UK. Regardless, it seems the UK is looking to fall back on another nation bloc: the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is an organization of former British colonies, including Canada, South Africa and Australia with the UK as its head. It is mostly made up of poor countries in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Decisions in the Commonwealth are usually made by persuasion and consensus, rather than through casting of votes like in the EU. Of recent, its influence on economic policies in member countries, including the UK, have waned with some of them withdrawing from the English nation bloc.

Commonwealth nations in Africa Credit: DW
Commonwealth nations in Africa
Credit: DW

Leaving the European Union

Seeing as Theresa May activated the clause on the 29th of March, 2017, Britain’s exit from the EU is not expected to last later than April 2019. However, experts say it could last later than that since, well, no country has ever left the European Union. Moreover, it is believed EU chiefs want to make the process as tedious as possible to deter other EU nations from entertaining the thought. So, on one hand, is a father who is making it hard for a son to be emancipated, and on another hand is the son who is trying to discover himself, or re-discover himself, as this case implies.

Re-discovery for the UK is looking to take the form of informal imperialism after years of giving it up in its colonies after WWII for free market globalization in the European Union. Years of integration into the free-market provided by the EU, the accompanying vestiges of colonialism in all of its former colonies, and the ever-present leadership of France and Germany meant it was a matter of time before the UK elected to leave to chart its own course again.

Moving from Brexit to the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth looks like a means of polishing the imprints of neo-colonialism within the UK’s former colonies, one that implies that these nations can never be truly independent. Already, UK’s foreign minister, the abhorrent Boris Johnson, has been making moves around Africa on behalf of the UK, with recent visits to Gambia, Ghana, Somalia, Kenya etc., all former British colonies. He made this statement “The strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world” on one of his visits, his imperialist inflection not hard to miss. Hence, leaving the EU isn’t an end in itself for the UK; regaining its imperialist status is.

A deeper relationship with the Commonwealth is imperative now that it seems Britain won’t be able to trade with other European countries in the EU, especially those still in the Union, not in the same frequency as before. Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which produced the European Union, gives the procedure for any country that wishes to leave the EU.

While countries like USA, China, and Japan have rejected joining the Commonwealth though they had close historical relations with imperial Britain, most of the members of the Commonwealth are sub-Saharan African countries. It would be ironic if those former countries were part of the Commonwealth; it would undermine the power of the British “empire’ in the Commonwealth, and create the same scenario UK is trying to escape in the EU.

UK Prime Minister May has already made plans to set a new agenda for the Commonwealth, now that the EU is no longer an option. She chairs the Commonwealth from 2018 to 2020, in a position that rotates around the member nations, and she would surely push for an agenda that would favor the UK more.

UK’s trade with Commonwealth nations is already almost 5 times as large as its trade with Europe. This is why its divorce from the EU isn’t all that bad. Well, except if you consider that none of its former colonies should still be in an abusive relationship with their former master. One of the reasons the UK left EU was the increased spate of immigration into the country. Leaving the EU might stop immigration from other parts of Europe, but it won’t stop the influx of immigrants from former colonies. Any trade deal between the UK and any Commonwealth nation will increase immigration.

Challenges to the UK’s plan

There will be challenges to UK’s plans in Africa. For one, countries like Nigeria, which is the second largest trade partner of the UK in Africa, would have to rethink its strategies. Nigeria had hoped to increase its dealings with the EU before the UK triggered Article 50 to leave the EU. Now, it is caught between opening new frontiers with the rest of Europe and restricting itself to dealing with the UK in Europe. It seems to have made a choice, though.

Nigeria has called Brexit an “opportunity and a challenge.” To Nigeria, it is easier “negotiating with a single country (than negotiating trade deals with the EU),… so that is the immediate advantage in that and when it is a partner, historically because we have about 2 million Nigerians in Diaspora so it is a big market for export and services both in ICT and financial sector.”

However, Nigeria, like other former British colonies in Africa, should really be looking to dictate the terms and not play a passive role in decisions that concern them. They should understand that the UK needs them, right now, more than they need the UK. For countries looking to diversify their economy, this seems like the perfect time to redefine trade deals.

Ghana also hopes to go solo, striking deals “one-on-one” with the UK. “…There is an opportunity for us to balance the scale, to ensure that we strike trade deals that favor especially our local business,” Courage Martey told German newspaper DW last week.

Africa shouldn’t be too eager to trade with the UK now that it has left the EU. The UK needs Africa more than Africa needs it. Africa should not be seen as a place where former imperialist countries can fall back on when globalization and free-market capitalism begins to fail them. Africa is a mineral-rich continent. However, the amount of foreign ownership means most of the resources and the profits leave the shores of the continent. This has been termed as the “New colonial invasion.” or “Empire 2.0.”

There is also the matter of countries like China expanding trade relations in Africa, in mostly win-win situations, albeit neo-colonialist in nature, a situation the UK would have to better in its former colonies in Africa. Chinese investments in Africa in 2014 were worth more than $200 billion. It would be much more than that now. China remains Africa’s largest trade partner, but the UK has the most businesses in Africa. Displacing China from being the largest trade partner would be a big task for the UK, with the relatively “no strings attached” policy of China. The UK would have to offer incentives.

The scale of China's investment in Africa. Credit: Brookings
The scale of China’s investment in Africa.
Credit: Brookings

Charting a new course for African trade and development

Creating a bridge linking different African countries together is more imperative than a bridge linking us with former and new imperialists. Strengthening African regional blocs, for one, is a step in the right direction. Speaking as Anglophone countries of ECOWAS or as the EAC would be from a place of influence. It is time for Africa to chart its own course, beginning with negotiations with the Commonwealth.

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