Working Papers

What are the Implications for UK – African Trade if the Brexit talks fail?

What are the Implications for UK – African Trade if the Brexit talks fail?

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13 Oct 2020

Author(s): Gerhard Erasmus

On 29 March 2017, the UK Government notified the European Council that it wanted to withdraw from the European Union (EU). This happened after a referendum on 23 June 2016 in which the UK electorate was asked whether the country should remain a member of the EU or leave it. The nature of the future relationship with the EU, the UK’s most important trading partner, did not figure on the ballot paper.

The Brexit process proved to be technically complicated and politically controversial. The initial debate in the UK emphasized regaining “sovereign control,” but as discussions with Brussels progressed, different needs and new complications had to be tackled. Mrs May wanted to exit the EU’s single market and conclude a bespoke agreement; for which there was no precedent. The EU, on the other hand, sought an orderly and comprehensive withdrawal in which the interests and integrity of the EU were protected. There had to be obligations regarding the UK’s post Brexit practices. It insisted on a “level playing field” for the future relationship with the UK. Only after this had been achieved, would a new trade agreement be negotiated.

These considerations explain why the Withdrawal Agreement (which came into force in the beginning of 2020) remains central to the Brexit process. The recent indications that the UK may renege on its obligations in the Withdrawal Agreement (discussed below) pose a real threat to the prospects of reaching a final deal before the end of October 2020. There seems to be agreement on both sides that after this point there would not be sufficient time to ensure implementation of a new bilateral trade agreement on 1 January 2021. This is also the date when new trade agreements with third parties (including with the member states of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and Mozambique) will have to be implemented.


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