Brexit triggered: What now?
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03 April 2017
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In light of Britain triggering Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon this week, giving the country two years to negotiate an exit deal from the European Union, Windhoek Observer’s Special Projects Editor, Jackie Asheeke (JA), sat down with British High Commissioner to Namibia, Jo Lomas (JL).

No country has ever left the EU before, and there was no way to legally leave the EU before the Treaty of Lisbon was signed in 2007.

As a member of the Commonwealth and long-time ally and partner of the United Kingdom since independence, Namibia has a keen interest in what occurs in that nation. The key linkages between the two countries include trade and development assistance, but agreements with the UK and the Commonwealth, are also of high importance to the Land of the Brave.

In this open and welcoming interview, High Commissioner Lomas addressed these issues.

JA: Tell us the significance of 29 March and Article 50 and the Brexit; walk us through that process.

JL: The referendum on Brexit was back in June 2016, when this very significant decision was taken by the British electorate. Since then there were some political changes in the UK; a new Prime Minister (Theresa May) took office, with a strong mandate to make sure the wish of the people was delivered.

We’ve taken nine months to organise ourselves and to have those initial discussions about what the UK wants and what the Brexit should look like. Wednesday saw the triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. Quite literally our permanent representative has delivered a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, stating that the UK wants to invoke the relevant article and we are going to be leaving.

That official letter has set off two years of negotiations, according to the treaty unless all sides agree to extend it. At these negotiations, the details of the Brexit will be mutually agreed and laid down.

What the European Commission has said is that in May, they will publish their negotiating guidelines, after they have consulted with the other EU members, and then the process gets started in earnest.

The final deal emerging from those negotiations has to be agreed by the British Parliament, the EU member states and the European Parliament. Basically, all sides have to agree on it...The British Parliament will vote on whether they want that deal or to reject it. But, the final decision remains, as voted in June 2016, that the UK will leave the EU.

What we would like after those two years is to have a phased and smooth implementation, to give some certainty to businesses and continuity to ourselves and to EU member states, and also to give ourselves time to prepare. This is quite a large undertaking.

During the two-year negotiating period, we are going to convert EU law, in one big Act, into UK law. This ‘Great Repeal Bill’ is a critically important point to note, in terms of continuity and certainty about a post-UK Brexit.

The idea of this is that it gives everyone continuity and certainty that EU law is in place, unless and until the UK Parliament decides to change it. There may be various things that they decide to change, but it will be our decision…We want the final deal to be mutually beneficial. It is in all of our interests to reach a smooth and sound deal, as quickly as possible.

JA: But, what happens if the UK Parliament doesn’t approve the deal that is the outcome of the negotiating process?

JL: There was a vote in the UK Parliament recently (13 March) on a White Paper that sets out the Government’s position. Parliament then voted to support the Government in triggering Article 50...

The next time Parliament votes it will approve the deal or not. The British PM says it is better to have no deal than a bad deal. The aim is for a good deal. If we don’t think that a good deal is going to happen, even with an extension, we will say no to the deal and move on to the World Trade Organisation tariffs. But, we are working on the basis that a mutually beneficial deal will emerge and Parliament will vote to accept it.

JA: What will the UK landscape be after Brexit? This is the uncertain question. Give us some highlights of the UK’s post-Brexit direction?

JL: Some people have tended to assume that Britain would become more isolationist and inward looking, after Brexit. But, that is actually not the case; it is the opposite. We see this as an opportunity for us to be a fully independent and sovereign nation, but also to be more outward-looking and more globally minded, both when it comes to trade and politically.

We are leaving the EU, but we are still going to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, NATO, G7, G20, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the Commonwealth. Those multilateral organisations will become even more important to us.

The Commonwealth is of high importance to the UK. The Government is keen to strengthen the Commonwealth, particularly in terms of trade. We support more intra-Commonwealth trade, and a general boost to prosperity for Commonwealth countries.

JA: Brexit has caused reactions on many levels.  For example, Scotland does not want to leave the EU, which means Brexit may well have provoked another referendum on Scottish independence.  Was this anticipated?

JL: We had a vote on Brexit, and like any vote or referendum, there will always be sections of a country that will not want something and others that do. But, it is the majority vote that carries, and the majority voted to exit.

Regarding Scotland and a referendum, there was a referendum on whether they would leave the UK a few years ago. At the time, everyone basically said this was a vote of a generation, and the UK Government’s point of view is that now is not the time for another.

While the negotiations are ongoing, the British Government’s view is that the Scottish people really cannot take an informed decision, because we don’t know what the final deal is going to look like. The deal for the exit is unknown at this point...Now is the time to negotiate and we will make sure all of the devolved administrations will have a say in that.

As an added complication, Scotland, even if they did vote to leave the UK, they are not automatically a member of the EU. The EU institutions and members have been quite clear that Scotland would be in the queue for membership, like other nations, and according to EU membership rules. A referendum on leaving the UK would not solve that problem.

JA: Brexit has been lumped in as a ‘shift to the right’ harbinger.  People consider Donald Trump, the re-rise of Marine Le Pen in France, the unsuccessful far-right challenge in the recent Netherlands elections, and seeming right-wing overtures in the upcoming German elections this year, as evidence of this. Do you see that connection with Brexit, that the UK people are more nationalistic than in years before?

JL: If you look at the reasons why people voted for Brexit, they are quite wide-ranging. Some voted to leave the EU, saying, “We want Britain to have more independence, sovereignty and more control over all of our political and economic policies.” You have that point of view at one end. But, you also have plenty of people whose objections to the EU was really around immigration and the belief that the UK Government should have more control over that area.

And some of those are people who felt that lower wages and deteriorating conditions of employment are the result of the large immigration flows. And of course, there are other reasons that people chose to vote for Brexit.

The big difference though, with Trump and Le Pen in particular, is that they are fairly protectionist in nature; anti-globalisation. We are not; we are the opposite. We have been long-term supporters of free and fair trade deals. We actually want to see more free trade deals and better ones. As a part of our exit, that is a part of our plan basically.

JA: What is the level of trade between the UK and Namibia, and how is that affected by the Brexit plan?

JL: Roughly the trade between the UK and Namibia, both ways (imports and export value), is about £80 million British pounds (approximately N$1,3 billion).

We are very keen not to disrupt our trading relations, particularly with developing countries. Long-term, we have been a supporter of free and fair trade and we want to make a better deal, most likely with the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), or it could be a wider-ranging deal.

We do see ourselves negotiating another deal after Brexit, which we expect to be a better deal. But, short-term we want to avoid disruption. We have the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) in place, and in our view, they could form a good basis for short-term agreements. That seems to us the most likely way of continuing trade, without any disruption, and with a view to longer-term negotiations for something better.

JA: Will there be bilateral development assistance agreements between Namibia and the UK specifically?  Can you list some of the highlights of UK/Namibia development assistance in 2017/18?

JL: We don’t have a bilateral development assistance program with Namibia; we haven’t had one since Namibia graduated to a higher economic status (a middle to high-income country), and we empathise with the challenges related to that designation.

We have modest programs here, focusing on business development. We worked with the Ministry of Finance on training and capacity building, in delivering public/private partnerships programs. We have the Chevening Scholarship (www.chevening.org/namibia), and currently nine Namibian students are now involved in that program.

We also contribute significantly to the Commonwealth Scholarship Fund, with money from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Education is one of those key areas we focus on with our programs. We also work with women empowerment support. We support civil society to empower women. These are modest projects, and are not classic development assistance programs.

What happens with our development assistance programs will be a part of the Brexit negotiations. The UK is one of the few developed countries of the world that has maintained its goal of utilising 0,7 percent of our GNI (gross national income) for development assistance – that is an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) goal.

Many developed countries have signed up to meet that goal, but have not. In the UK, using that level of funds for development assistance is law.

The issue is not how much; it is through which agencies we will continue to distribute our development assistance. We have to evaluate where we see our priorities. If we see EU programs that have actually delivered well, we could decide to maintain funding there…There are no guarantees about bilateral assistance to Namibia, but certainly our global development assistance will not change, in terms of quantity, just because of Brexit.

JA: In October 2016, the British pound hit a 31-year low against the US dollar.  Was this anticipated in the pre-Brexit debate? 

JL: Clearly the pound has depreciated at the same time as the stock markets in the UK have risen to their highest levels.

All of that is a reaction to uncertainty with Brexit. Markets don’t like uncertainty. That is why we are keen to get the basics of the agreement agreed early on, have our status agreed and to have as smooth and quick a deal as we can.

WINDHOEK OBSERVER

The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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