What have we learned so far about Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU around international development?

7 December 2016

Nearly six months on from the EU Referendum, we might have thought that the shape of Brexit - or at least the UK’s negotiating position - would be clearer than it is. But what is clearest is that uncertainty still reigns, and that goes for how the UK will relate to the EU around development issues as much as the big questions such as access to the single market.

However, the publication last week of DFID’s Multilateral Development Review provides a useful opportunity to reflect on this question. The eurosceptic press certainly has, with the Daily Mail reporting "Fury as Minister says our aid cash may still go to the EU" following comments at a Parliamentary debate on the Review.

EU will remain a crucial development partner for the UK

Aid only forms a part of Britain’s international development relationship with the EU, but it is an important part, with the UK currently providing about £1.4 billion of the EU development budget. The DFID Review looked at the UK’s funding to the multilateral agencies it works with, and NGOs had speculated if it might provide any answers as to whether the UK will continue to put money into shared EU development pots following Brexit.

The European Commission development funds (DCI and EDF) scored highly in the Review’s rankings, with a ‘Very Good’ match with UK development objectives, and ‘Good’ organisational strength; the EC humanitarian funds scored equally highly. NGOs would broadly agree with these rankings - while not perfect, the EU’s development and humanitarian instruments perform pretty well relative to other multilaterals.

But, in step with the wider Brexit debate, the Review is open about the future, simply stating: “The UK’s decision to leave the EU will have implications for DFID’s future partnerships with the EU bodies included in this Review. In the meantime, the UK continues to work with the EU, meeting our obligations, including funding to [the EU development and humanitarian funds].”

The accompanying Bilateral Development Review argues that "Leaving the European Union will provide the UK with a unique opportunity to exercise even greater control over development policy and funding”. This could suggest that the UK will put at least some of this money elsewhere, or  simply highlights that we have the choice to do so, rather than pre-empt any decision.

Contrary to the Daily Mail’s reporting of it, DFID Minister James Wharton was similarly taking a sensible, non-committal approach to the question in his comments to Parliament. Bond and our members want to see the UK’s aid money spent as effectively as possible to meet the needs of people in poverty. DFID’s approach to considering the performance of multilateral agencies as a basis for deciding to fund them is right. If EU funds are shown to provide one of the more effective ways of reaching poor people around the world even after Brexit, they should not be written off for fear of a political backlash from some parts of the media establishment.

Beyond the Reviews, DFID is rightly emphasising in conversations with us and others that the EU will remain a crucial development partner for the UK beyond Brexit, whatever the funding relationship turns out to be. There’s no way it could be otherwise, as the world’s largest aid donor and a key player in vital agendas for international development including climate change, combating tax dodging and evasion, and dealing with conflict and insecurity around the world. DFID, and indeed the wider government, needs to ensure the most constructive possible relationship with our EU partners so we have a strong footing to continue cooperating to achieve our shared objectives once the UK has left the EU.

Carrying on the Brexit conversation

Bond has already explored what this post-Brexit relationship should look like at our Brexit, what’s next? event and will be working with our members over coming months to develop further proposals. We are also coordinating with colleagues in Brussels and other EU member states, who are equally interested in ways of ensuring that the UK’s exit from the Union can hopefully strengthen, rather than weaken, the EU’s own international development impact in future. We look forward to contributing to this discussion as it proceeds. 

For the latest news, views and resources on what Brexit means for international development, check out our Brexit hub

About the author

Kathleen Spencer Chapman
Plan International UK

Kathleen Spencer Chapman is head of policy, advocacy and research at Plan International UK.