BY SIR RICHARD OTTAWAY
Brexit has made it seem as though the world of politics is lived day to day, even hour to hour. At present, it is hard to see or think beyond March of next year. Yet if there is one lesson I have learned throughout my political career, it is that short-term strategy is only ever effective if it is underpinned by long term-planning.
If the UK is to place itself in a position of economic strength post Brexit, then its success will be reliant upon making its geopolitical world bigger, not smaller. Key to this will be strengthening our ties with emerging markets in the commonwealth.
There is much discussion about what the future UK-EU trade relationship will look like, and even more speculation about how our trading relationships with the U.S., Australia, Canada and India will take shape. However, the often overlooked, but I believe, the more strategically and geopolitically prudent investment is in Africa. This, of course, is something the Prime Minister is aware of. Theresa May’s recent trip to Africa highlighted her ambition for this region of the world to become a key future economic and trading partner, announcing £4bn of UK investment, with the hope of private investment matching this amount over time.
It is therefore no coincidence that H.R.H. Prince Harry visited Zambia this week. A vibrant, democratically stable, environmentally aware nation, and one of the main success stories of postcolonialism. Prince Harry had a packed agenda which included visiting the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, a reception to celebrate UK-Zambia relations, and an event commemorating WWI and WWII Zambian veterans. The visit highlighted the deep and fruitful connection that the UK and Zambia have shared over the last hundred years.
However, whilst this is a positive step, we should also consider that since French President Emmanuelle Macron came into office, he has made nine separate trips to Africa, visiting 11 countries, whilst Theresa May has made just one trip to the continent, visiting just three nations. This shows that Britain needs to be doing far more to reinvigorate its ties with this part of the world. Ms May has had a full and complicated domestic and international agenda since her tenure at number ten began, but we cannot afford to take our eyes off the long-term prize.
The Prince’s visit highlighted the fact that countries like Zambia are rapidly developing hubs of start-ups, tech programmes, and innovation, that are driven by a young and growing population. Commonwealth nations like this are exactly where we should be looking for the next spike in consumers, investors, and trade.
Zambia is a country rich in resources, which provides a business-friendly environment, where governments and global companies are welcoming the opportunities provided by its market access across Southern Africa. Whereas countries like Zambia were once reliant upon their trade in traditional regional commodities, there has been a significant development in new growth sectors such as hydro-power, tourism, and agriculture. It is an evolving and growing economy, at a time when so many other economies of the world are either shrinking or stagnating.
The EU has been quick to identify the value of investment in these markets and so too, should the UK. At present we enjoy trade relations with Zambia through the European Eastern and Southern Partnership, which we expect to be rolled over into UK law post-Brexit. However, rather than simply seeking to cut and paste the status quo and be content with our existing relationship, we should be thinking about how we can grow, expand, and diversify our investment in Africa. Crucial to creating these long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships is also supporting nations in areas where there is still room for improvement, such as sustaining democracy and creating well-functioning infrastructure. By doing this we are not just investing in an economic partnership that can be undermined by the next highest bidder, but instead developing a genuine partnership built for a generation.
Looking at the EU’s huge investment in its relationship with African nations of late – now, rather than later, is the time for the UK to act. Despite Brexit consuming Brussels for the past three years, it was the EU’s announcement to create a more equal partnership with Africa that dominated Jean Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address back in September. It is clear that the UK cannot afford to do anything other than keep pace with this level of political investment and engagement for its own economic and trading gains.
The UK should think beyond what kind of nation it wants to be in the years to come, but also consider the journey other nations are on at the same time. The future is here to be defined, and I hope that Prince Harry’s visit to Zambia this week was just another step in the right direction of creating a reinvigorated Commonwealth and a thriving British and Zambian relationship for years to come.