With Brexit on the horizon, Britain is eyeing Africa to retain global importance, exploring investment opportunities in the context of a stereotype-free, “new partnership.”
Rabat – As he visits Morocco in prelude to the UK-Africa Summit to be held in London on January 20, Philip Parham, the special envoy for the summit, is calling for renewed UK-Africa engagements by giving “a new impetus to direct engagement” and transcending the weight of a history that has been marked by the West’s propensity to preach to the continent.
The idea that Brexit will be bad for the UK economy has become a mantra in a considerable section of the narrative around post-Brexit UK, with some especially contending that leaving the EU will be the last straw for the UK’s dimming claim to global prestige.
But that the argument has stubbornly been around—and been defended by most expert predictions—does not seem to negatively affect the confidence of the British government in the country’s ability to not only survive the post-Brexit storms, but to actually thrive in a context of a fast-moving, multipolar globalization.
As the country decides to leave a club many felt was good for Britain, it is perhaps time to prepare for the challenges of the order to come, the post-Brexit optimism seems to suggest. This, according to Parham’s press conference at the British ambassador’ residence in Rabat earlier today, would mostly consist in coming up with a new vision for maintaining, and perhaps even increasing, Britain’s global prestige and outreach.
‘Maximize opportunities for direct engagement’
To be fair, Parham did not directly reference Brexit, nor were post-Brexit-related arguments manifestly discernible as he addressed a roomful of Moroccan journalists. But the spirit was there, with the UK official repeatedly mentioning the UK’s new ambitions in an African continent that is increasingly becoming, for better or worse, the battle ground for much of global investment flows.
Parham is mostly in Morocco to lay the groundwork for the January UK-Africa Investment Summit, to set the tone of the meeting. His goal, like the summit’s, for that matter, is mostly to “explore investment potential” in Africa and help the British government and British companies, as well as “African partners,” to seize the vast opportunities that could come from new UK-Africa engagements.
“The reason for the summit is to increase the flow of British investments in Africa,” he said.
He continued by rather optimistically outlining “what the UK specifically brings” to the investment and sustainable growth conversations in Africa and how, in a context of increasing global connections, a post-Brexit UK wants to carve up new venues and new ways–or at least more effective ways–of connecting with Africa .
“We will be arranging the summit to maximize the opportunities for direct engagement between governments and businesses and between government and governments, and between businesses and businesses,” he offered.
The overriding goal, he emphasized, is to create “a new partnership” between Africa and the UK, “in particular, a new partnership which creates and sustains jobs, which will be probably be one key theme of the whole summit.”
Parhams’s expose, as he briefly highlighted “sustainable finance,” trade barriers, and economic growth opportunities as the focus of the UK-Africa summit, gave a rosy, heartening picture of a Britain that is both aware of the challenges it is getting into and prepared to make a compelling case for its “new impetus”-driven agenda.
2Parham’s overall picture was optimistic, uplifting even for what can be summarized as the new diplomatic vision of a post-Brexit UK looking to remain an important global player.
But was it realistic? Are the goals even attainable? How, for example, does the UK plan to deal with the stern competition from players like the US, China, France, and even the EU as a whole in what some analysts have already termed as the “new scramble for Africa?” What exactly does the UK bring to an overcrowded conversation on investment in Africa? Will Britain compete to have a prominent spot or will it simply be happy to be just another actor trying to get as much as it can from its “new partnership” with Africa?
All about ‘equal partnership’
Parham did not directly take on such concerns, either because these were not specifically asked by any of the journalists present as he spoke, or because, as an unarticulated note of caution, it is a little too soon to engage in full-throated assessments of an agenda that will only be effectively in place once the soon-to-be-held UK-Africa summit is all done with.
In that sense, it could be said that what will happen in London next month is set to dictate much of what will happen in UK-Africa ties in the months and years afterwards.
For Parham, though, the special status of the city of London as a world-renowned, coveted destination for investors and businesses, as well as the widely acknowledged commitment of the British government to “sustainable growth and development,” are two essential features that post-Brexit Britain will bring to the conversation table.
In quantitative terms, while the UK has invested up £2 billion in Africa in recent years, it expects to “invest even more in the continent in years to come,” he confidently revealed. The ultimate goal of the summit and its aftermath, he stressed, is to both “explore” existing potential for investments and growth and “expand direct engagement with African partners” to drive the march towards “clean energies” and “sustainable investments” in Africa.
One recurring argument in African policy circles is the idea that European countries have been historically arrogant, entitled, and condescending in how they relate to the continent. How does the UK plan to respond to such criticism of Europe’s or the West’s neocolonial presence in Africa?
“It’s a trap to easily fall into,” Parham tartly acknowledged, speaking of the perceived Eurocentric, self-righteous pedestal from which most Western partners look at Africa. But it will be different for the UK-Africa Investment Summit, he argued. “This is about equal partnership. This is not about teaching anyone anything on development or growth; or about telling people how things should be done. This is basically about what we can do together.”
Morocco, ‘a gateway to Africa’
Because it would have been diplomatically misplaced not to speak about Morocco, Parham referenced the North African kingdom’s importance in the UK’s “new vision” for Africa.
Britain sees “Morocco as a gateway to Africa,” he announced, hastening to provide an illustrious litany of the notable achievements Morocco has made of late, both on the domestic and transnational fronts.
Morocco’s success stories in areas like “clean energy,” renewables, investments, and economic growth, he illustrated, are part of the many reasons why the UK-Africa summit is “about cooperation, what we can do together to move further in the right direction.”
“Of course, a lot of this is very relevant to Morocco, and we are delighted that Morocco is one of the countries that will be coming to participate in this summit,” he said. “Morocco is itself a significant player for Africa and an investor elsewhere in Africa. So we see Morocco as a very important gateway to Africa and partner for collaborations in many of these areas across the continent.”
In this, Parham was echoing a sticking point from a series of interviews that the British ambassador to Rabat, Thomas Reilly, had with many Moroccan outlets in the immediate aftermath of the recent signing of a post-Brexit continuity agreement between Rabat and London.
“My government sees Morocco as a gateway to Africa. Morocco really knows a lot about Africa, and we know some parts of Africa. So this deal is really about bringing our strategic relations to the next level,” Ambassador Reilly recently told Morocco World News.
While the gateway comment is particularly witty, even if it does not especially differ from the usual, image-stuffed umbrella terms diplomats heavily rely on to navigate fraught, sensitive terrains, Parham ended his conference with even wittier lines. He stressed the effectiveness-driven agenda that post-Brexit Britain wants to live by as it looks to join the now fashionable race of seducing African partners.
“I finally want to underline that the summit is the beginning of an end. We are not doing the summit just for the sake of doing a summit; we are doing it in order to have an impact for many years into the future. It’s the beginning of a new impetus,” he said.