The Developing World Is Better Off With Britain Inside the EU

08/05/2016 18:25 | Updated 08 May 2016

Barack Obama argues for Britain to remain in the EU, and finds his views controversially dismissed by Boris Johnson, now-former Mayor of London, because he (Obama) is 'part-Kenyan'. But, hang on. Why shouldn't Kenyans have a view on Brexit? And Tanzanians and Ghanaians? Boris Johnson thinks it is because they might be prejudiced by colonial memories.

In fact, Africans, and others in developing countries all around the world, have a current, legitimate and urgent interest in the future of the European Union. The EU, remember, is the most important trading partner of developing countries, the largest provider of aid, a key partner in managing conflict, an essential ally in tackling climate change, and a defender of core values like democracy, gender equality and human rights.

Would Africa and the whole developing world be better off if the UK were to leave the EU? Hardly likely. The UK is a progressive voice in Brussels. It is the only country to have passed legislation fixing the size of the aid budget to meet the UN target of 0.7% of GNI. It has consistently argued for reform of the trade-distorting subsidies associated with the Common Agricultural Policy. It played a key role in the negotiation of the new Sustainable Development Goals, arguing specifically for democracy and rights to be prominent. And it has been consistently ambitious within the EU on climate change.

The UK is not the only progressive voice. Nor is its record without stain. In fact, the UK ranks only sixth on the Centre for Global Development's Commitment to Development Index, behind some other EU Member States, like Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands. Parliamentary enquiries in the UK House of Commons have pointed to the need for better UK performance on arms sales, corruption, tax policy and refugees.

Nevertheless, the UK builds in Europe on a long-standing commitment to development, reflected in its universities, research centres and rich ecology of NGOs; and cemented in 1997 by the creation of a full Government Department for International Development, with cabinet status.

There is much at stake in Europe just now. The external environment is characterised by economic slowdown, the pressure of conflict, the refugee crisis, and the need to move rapidly to act on the Sustainable Development Goals, especially those related to climate. Urgent action is also needed to tackle the tax and transparency issues revealed by the Panama Papers. The threat of global disease epidemics is ever-present, with Ebola having been supplanted by the zika virus as the most urgent current threat. In all these arenas, the priority is coordinated action among groups of nations: another reason to put the global role of the EU high on the agenda.

The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Federica Mogherini, is about to publish a new global strategy. There are pressures for this to be strongly focused on physical security and on hard power. Developing nations welcome the presence of 17 EU police and military missions, underpinning peace and security in some or the world's most difficult hotspots. However, they also want to see the EU deploying aid, trade and other instruments of soft power to help deliver poverty reduction and sustainability.

The EU, for example, has been a champion of education, food security and gender equality. In 2016, it will probably launch a review of development policy, shaping the priorities of the Brussels institutions, but also the national policies of 28 Member States. There will also be a review of the EU budget, and of the partnership agreement with the 79 countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group. The latter, it turns out, was instrumental in helping to broker a deal at the climate talks in Paris in December. The EU and the ACP, working together over many months, often behind the scenes, created a new High Ambition Coalition, which cut across the traditional dividing line of the G7 and the G77.

If the UK leaves the EU, it will not be involved in building a new global approach and new global alliances. Justine Greening, the International Development minister, has made this point strongly: the UK benefits from having a seat at the table in the EU, and so does the wider world.

But what will she and other Cabinet ministers be arguing for? The UK has been explicit about its approach to development, in a new policy launched last November. The UK will focus on tackling the great global challenges. It will focus on fragile states, on strengthening resilience and response to crises, on sustainability and on securing growth. Importantly, the UK pledges to 'leave no-one behind', focusing on the welfare of the poorest and on the rights of women as well as men, and those held back by discrimination.

What this means is that the debate in the UK is not just about Remain or Leave. It is about Remain and Reform. Is there a developing country citizen, even a part-Kenyan, who would like the British Voice in the EU to be silenced?

Simon Maxwell is Chair of the European Think Tanks Group