British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a big speech in Florence on September 22 setting out her administration's position on the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the European Union. Notably, May reaffirmed her belief that Britain can strike a bespoke deal which grants British businesses special access to European markets while simultaneously giving the UK sufficient flexibility to shape its own future independent of the EU.
Whether or not this stance is a realistic ambition – critics accuse the UK government of wanting to have its cake and eat it – it means that, for now, the exact shape of the UK's final Brexit deal is a mystery. However, this reality has not stopped African leaders and businesses from preparing for the UK's eventual departure from the EU, says Joel Kibazo, Managing Director at FTI Consulting, based in London:
"Africa is [already] starting to hedge its bets. African countries are getting on and talking about their priorities with the UK. Whether the UK is doing the same [with Africa] is something else."
The customs union question
One aspect of the UK's final Brexit deal that is of particular interest for Africa is whether or not Britain will exit the European Union's customs union. The UK could feasibly join Turkey and Andorra as countries outside the EU but inside the customs union, although this would still leave the UK dependent on the European Commission to negotiate its own trade deals after Brexit - something which Brexit-supporting politicians would struggle to accept.
Emma Wade-Smith, the UK's Trade Commissioner for Africa, could not confirm whether Britain will come out of the EU's customs union after Brexit, but she did suggest that this would become inevitable if the EU does not grant the UK sufficient flexibility to strike its own trade deals in the future:
"The UK has been clear that it wants to have the ability to make its own trading arrangements, and if that means leaving the customs union, then that is what will have to happen."
From an African perspective, British politicians' rhetoric of a global UK forging new relationships with the rest of the world, including Africa, is only meaningful if Britain exits the customs union.
Max Jarrett is the director-in-charge of the Africa Progress Panel's Secretariat. Speaking to DW in a personal capacity, he said he believes it is essential that Britain leaves the union:
"For Africa you want a deal that enables the other party [the UK] to have the flexibility to negotiate and agree on steps that are economically optimal to you. If they can't do that, then what's the point of them being outside [the EU]?"
The optimistic view
The UK's Department for International Trade (DIT) is unsurprisingly buoyant about the opportunities Brexit provides Africa, despite its refusal to unequivocally state that the UK will exit the customs union after Brexit.
In an interview with DW, Kiran Collier, the DIT's senior media officer, said, "Africa has huge potential for trading with the UK. As we leave the EU, we will have the opportunity to shape our own trade policy, which can only be a good thing for places like Africa."
Collier's comments come in the wake of a visit to South Africa and Mozambique in mid-September by the British secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, during which he announced additional financial support for British businesses which invest in the two countries.
Weaker Britain = stronger Africa?
There is one reason for African optimism about Brexit that the DIT would not trumpet: namely post-Brexit Britain's potential weakness in entering future trade negotiations with the continent. If indeed Britain does choose to leave the customs union, then its civil service will have to begin negotiating trade settlements for the first time in over forty years and without the political might of 27 EU member states alongside it.
For Jarrett, if African countries work collectively, they have the chance to strike a future deal with the UK that avoids both sides being ripped off, contrary to Africa's existing trade arrangements with the European Union, which he believes are unjust:
"At the moment, the dice are completely loaded against African countries [because the EU is dealing with Africa country-to-country]. For example, the EU is dealing with little Togo. Is that fair?"
Jarrett's belief is that Brexit could allow African countries to negotiate with a weakened UK on a level playing field.
Of course, Wade-Smith does not accept the view that the UK may emerge from Brexit less powerful:
"I don't recognize a scenario where the UK would be weakened. The conversations that I'm aware that have been taking place between African countries are incredibly positive about wanting to ensure continuity in current trading arrangements and then improving on existing trade agreements further down the line."
The pessimistic view
There are, however, also concerns from the African side about Britain's departure from the EU and in particular, what kind of European Union will be left after Brexit. Kibazo told DW that many Africans are worried about losing the EU's loudest pro-Africa voice:
"Britain has been a great voice within the EU for two things: development [aid], and encouraging trade and partnerships with Africa. The concern is where that voice will come from within the EU [once the UK has left]."
Kibazo also emphasized how Britain has historically been the harshest critic of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a protectionist measure that stifles African agricultural development.
For Jarrett, Brexit could potentially spell trouble for Africa on two fronts. He believes that the UK must commit to rewriting the Economic Partnership Arrangements (EPAs) which he regards as the source of African economic exploitation, and that failure to do so would mean a "loss-loss" scenario with the simultaneous threat of a more protectionist EU after Brexit:
"Britain has to enter trading relations with African countries that address issues which they feel are not just within the EPAs. If Britain were to do that, then I think most Africans would cheer a Brexit Britain."