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What does leaving the EU mean for development policy?

21 July 2017

Understanding and gauging the implications of triggering article 50 on international development and humanitarian aid has been a priority for civil society organisations in the UK and beyond since the UK’s decision to leave the EU. One year on, Brexit negotiations are underway, but we are still far from fully comprehending what Brexit really means. 

Bond commissioned two research projects at the end of 2016 to better understand the impact that Brexit would have on the ability of UK CSOs to deliver world-class international development and humanitarian programmes. This research resulted in two comprehensive reports: one covers the potential financial and operational consequences of Brexit on UK CSOs; the other explores the impact that Brexit may have on the future direction of both UK and EU international development and humanitarian policy.

An opportunity for continued collaboration?

Despite the UK and the EU relinquishing their economic and political union, there are many opportunities for continued collaboration, both financial and operational, to pursue common values and shared development goals. Brexit could simply mark the beginning of a different type of partnership, which could see the UK and the EU still travelling towards a common destination.

Leaving the EU has the potential to be transformational for the UK as it will have the opportunity of setting a new forward-looking course in its approach to international development, raising the bar for global development partners. Yet, Bond’s research also highlights many potential challenges associated with Brexit, which may have important repercussions on the world’s poorest people. These will need to be considered and any negative impacts adequately mitigated.  

The departure of a member state is equally unprecedented for the EU and it is expected to alter existing dynamics among the member states. Brexit will generate a significant political and financial vacuum at the heart of the EU; how this will be filled is the subject of much speculation. Overall, the UK’s exit may potentially diminish the “soft power” of the EU as well as of the UK as a result of the reduction in mutual influence, exchange and collective strength. 

Ultimately, however, Brexit is only one of the factors currently contributing to re-shape international development and humanitarian policies. Any potential impact of the UK’s exit from the EU should also be viewed within the context of the evolving political landscapes in the UK and in EU member states. There remains great uncertainty, in this context, regarding the direction and the magnitude of any changes that Brexit may help catalyse both in the UK and the EU. 

Where does international development fit into Brexit negotiations?

This is still unclear. We know that during the first phase of the Brexit talks (up to the end of 2017) the parties will agree the principles for a financial settlement. This will have important repercussions on development and humanitarian aid. For instance, the EU has singled out the European Development Fund (aimed at African, Caribbean and Pacific countries), EU Trust Funds and the Facility for Refugees in Turkey as instruments where it deems the UK to have existing obligations. 

From early 2018, during the second phase of the negotiations, the EU and the UK will move on to scoping out future relations. Yet, the detail of this future relationship, encompassing cooperation in international development and humanitarian action, will not be fleshed out until after the withdrawal agreement is concluded in March 2019. Is international development in danger of being forgotten in the negotiations, could it be used as a “bargaining chip” or could it be re-interpreted to shift away from a poverty focus towards the ‘national interest’? 

These and many other questions are further explored in Bond’s two reports on Brexit and UK CSOs, which set a common path for the sector to engage in this hugely important process. 

Read the full report on Brexit's impact on development and humanitarian policy.

About the author

Costanza de Toma
Advocacy etc.

Costanza de Toma is a consultant, trainer and facilitator with over twenty years experience in international development.