Britain wants to boost trade ties with Africa after it leaves the European Union — a project some have called “Empire 2.0.” British plans to build on historical links with its former empire could face resistance in many African countries, as exporters face years of uncertainty over future trading relations with the UK.
Britain says leaving the EU will allow it to “go global” and throw off the shackles it claims the EU has imposed on its trading ambitions. On a recent visit to Uganda, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the first stop would be Britain’s former colonies.
“We are re-entering the Commonwealth, re-entering the global economy,” he said.
That re-entry has been dubbed “Empire 2.0” in Britain. But in many former colonies, memories of British rule are at best mixed, said British Conservative party lawmaker Kwasi Kwarteng, an author on the legacy of the British Empire, and a key figure in the campaign to leave the EU.
“My own family is from West Africa, Ghana, which is a Commonwealth country and was a former colony. And people have very mixed memories of the Empire. So to try and relive that past, I think, is a completely ridiculous and forlorn exercise. But what we can do is to try and use those relationships that were forged, some of them through the Empire, and then latterly through the Commonwealth,” said Kwarteng.
The legacy of the British Empire is still debated decades after its collapse. In South Africa, statues of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes were torn down in 2015.
Despite a long list of atrocities — such as the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s — Kwarteng believes the old links forged in Empire days will aid new trade deals.
“There’s a vast world out there, nearly 80 percent of global GDP, which is outside the EU. And a lot of GDP is taken up by Commonwealth countries,” he said.
Critics highlight that almost half of British exports go to the European Union — $288 billion worth every year. In comparison, exports to Africa total just $21.3 billion.
To boost that trade, Britain wants quick trade deals with emerging economies. But African nations should be cautious, according to Matt Grady of the charity Traidcraft, which advocates fair trade and global justice.
“African countries have indicated that their priorities are regional integration and cooperation. So now is not really the time for the UK to be trying to negotiate deals with African countries that will undermine those priorities. It will undermine their ability to develop their manufacturing and processing sectors,” he said.
Brexit poses other risks. Britain imports $9.7-billion worth of goods from Africa — including produce like coffee from Kenya or wine from South Africa.
“Producers in developing countries, they don’t know what tariffs they’re going to face to sell into Britain. Decisions are being made now for two years down the line on uncertain conditions,” said Grady.
Citing that uncertainty, the head of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of nations said this week that a free trade deal with Britain should be delayed until at least six years after Britain’s EU exit.