Today, Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, formally notifying the EU that the UK will withdraw as a member. Cue dramatic headlines about the auspicious day and Brexiteers sighing with relief that the UK has – finally – officially said it’s leaving. They shouldn’t hold their breath. The negotiations will be lengthy and, at times, probably quite acrimonious.
International development isn’t going to feature in either the UK or EU’s negotiating priorities. So the world’s poorest people will also have a long wait before they find out the impact on their aid from and development cooperation with the world’s largest donor.
This needn’t be the case. Development could be one of several issues, along with the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK for example, taken off the table at the outset, due to its status as an enduring commitment to be respected.
International development isn’t going to feature in either the UK or EU’s negotiating priorities.
This would help ease the fears of those whose development prospects depend on British commitments already made through the UK’s involvement with ongoing – and upcoming – EU development projects.
May recently made her strongest commitment yet to UK aid and its role at the heart of forging a ‘more global Britain’. Signalling that the UK will not play politics with development would be clear evidence that the country really is a ‘force for good in the world’.
A dramatically choreographed future?
So what exactly is likely to happen in the next two years? The EU will respond to Prime Minister May’s letter, likely after the 29 April meeting of other EU leaders, and will probably lay out some of the process and express hopes for a constructive negotiation. It’s unlikely to say much else at this stage.
More detail won’t come until later, when UK and EU negotiators meet officially and agree some common ‘lines to take’ on areas such as the tone, scope and – potentially – some early issues of discussion. We can then expect a carefully choreographed dance of informal and formal meetings, behind the scenes discussions and countless draft proposals.
This will all be accompanied by fervent communication efforts by both sides (no doubt replete with manufactured drama) to keep the press, social media and all the rest of us informed (and entertained).
A final chance for the UK to be ‘the good European’
It’s unlikely anything will really be agreed until everything is agreed. However, important signals can and should be sent on issues that won’t be significant bargaining chips. Issues which can create goodwill and promote a mutually constructive approach, such as development.
Development cooperation is dealt with differently to most other policy areas, largely escaping the national interest-driven horse-trading that is far more typical of how the EU operates. It has also seen the UK act as ‘the good European’ for a change, pushing EU member states to go further and the European Commission to do more. For example leading calls for more money to be spent on ODA.
The temptation will be to focus on the money. Britain accounts for around 15% of what the EU spends on development, a sum amounting to around £1.3 billion in 2015. The EU will struggle to get other member states to make up the shortfall when the UK leaves. Yet these looming financial headaches shouldn’t be used as an excuse for the EU and UK to forget their commitments to countries where people are in real need.
Development can serve as the foundation for constructive negotiations
All that said, international development negotiators won’t be the ones deciding whether the UK honours financial commitments to the EU. These are matters for the Treasury, which ultimately holds the purse strings.
It’s inconceivable that the UK will offer up any contributions to EU spending, however noble, until the dust has settled after Brexit. So rather than waste time on phoney negotiations, the UK and EU should immediately pledge to meet their obligations to partners in the Global South through development programming, support and partnerships. After all, both are independently committed to at least maintaining how much they give in aid. They both have also signed up to the same Sustainable Development Goals.
Initiating Brexit with this kind of pledge would be welcome evidence of May's more outward-looking Britain.
Since interests are aligned and funding has already been publicly promised, neither side would lose negotiating capital. Furthermore, opening discussions with a gesture of goodwill and celebration of consensus might help both sides successfully navigate more contentious areas of negotiation. The next two years could then be more usefully spent working out exactly how the UK and EU will continue to work together on development.
Initiating Brexit with this kind of pledge would be welcome evidence of May's more outward-looking Britain. It would be in the best interests of the UK, the EU and developing countries. And, it would also be the ‘right and fair thing to do’.
David Watson is Head of Strategic Partnerships for the Economics and Finance team at the Overseas Development Institute. Prior to joining ODI, David worked as a British diplomat at the UK Representation to the EU in Brussels.