What could Brexit mean for Zimbabwe?

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YONA MENON

Zimbabwe shares political and economic ties with the UK as it played a key supporting role in colonial times and in the immediate post-independence era. Over time, political tensions saw the ties weaken as Zimbabwe grew increasingly isolated from the global community. The exit of Robert Mugabe saw rising hope of the prospect of re-establishing the severed ties with the U.K. Newly instated UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson even hailed it as a “moment of hope” for Zimbabwe. However, recent political developments in both nations have seen hopes of renewed ties weaken.

For the UK, the issue of Brexit has increasingly dominated the political landscape, culminating in the exit of Prime Minister Theresa May following her failure to deliver an agreeable Brexit deal. In line with that Johnson came to the fore under the promise of delivering a swift Brexit, deal or no deal. As a resolution to the long standing debacle seemingly approaches, it is worthwhile to consider the possible implications for Zimbabwean relations with the U.K.

The sentiment shared globally among SMEs for years is that of all possible Brexit scenarios, businesses fear a “no deal” situation the most. If the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal on Oct. 31, say the documents, the country could face…

  • Shortages of fresh food, medicine, and fuel
  • Disruptions at ports for several months
  • The closure of two oil refineries
  • Social unrest and the restoration of a “hard border” with Ireland 

Michael Gove, the minister leading no-deal preparations, said the docs were out of date but conceded that leaving the EU without a deal would cause “bumps in the road.” Meanwhile industry groups say there are only so many bumps small businesses can absorb. The latest statistics on UK trade illustrate the significant economic ties with the EU, with the union accounting for 45.6% of UK exports and 64% of imports in 2018.

The effects of a no deal Brexit could stretch into everything for the UK, from banking and insurance to lawyers, musicians and chefs. No deal also means immediately leaving EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice and Europol, its law enforcement body. Membership of dozens of EU bodies that govern rules on everything from medicines to trade marks would end. Currently the standards of products produced in the UK have to conform to EU standards, changes on this front may also see some benchmarks for quality either dipping or rising.

The EU membership required the UK to contribute £9bn a year towards funding of the regional block. This will no longer be required in a “no deal” Brexit. Pro “no deal” politicians believe this money is better served on home soil promoting British sovereignty and development.  New prime minister Boris Johnson said he’s going to take the U.K. out of the EU by Halloween, deal or no deal.

A no deal Brexit would also mean the UK service industry would lose its guaranteed access to the EU single market. Additionally, the added taxes and tariffs that will be charged to UK manufactured goods and services could make UK exports less competitive. This is expected to shrink the UK economy until access to new markets is established. It is that there that observers suggest could be an opportunity for the African market to create synergy with the UK and benefit from the scenario. For Zimbabwe there is undeniably scope to improve trade ties, with only US$4.9 million exports to the UK since 2017 versus US$396 million in imports over the same period.

There is still a sense of uncertainty on what Boris Johnson’s policy on Africa and Zimbabwe will be going forward. Some would argue Zimbabwe has the advantage of potentially capitalizing on its history with the UK to negotiate for a bilateral trade and migration deal. According to statistics, the UK’s biggest exports to the EU are business and financial services while its biggest import travel services, which include tourism services. Both present mutual opportunities given the local need to develop the financial services sectors and the expected role of tourism as a key economic sector. Beyond that, Zimbabwe represents a potential market for UKs manufactured EU exports like pharmaceuticals and industrial equipment.

The nationalistic posturing behind his hard-line stance on Brexit suggests whatever dealings will occur between Zimbabwe and the post Brexit UK will be primarily geared towards the latter’s favour. In any case, the UK has always been firm on what it expects from Zimbabwe in order to improve relations and engagement. While it is more than likely that the Brexit could yield opportunities, Zimbabwe is not exactly at the front of the line to exploit them. In that sense, it is difficult to see any developments around bilateral relations that will not be exploitative or extractive, unless the local government yields to some of the reforms demanded by the UK. The most recent developments in diplomatic relations suggest the window of opportunity is getting smaller with the UK minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin saying the country supports an extension of EU sanctions against Zimbabwe and will not back its plan to return to the Commonwealth.