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UK-Africa trade is tiny plaster for Brexit wounds

The longer-term shift to “trade not aid” will have to be dramatic if it is to compensate for the setback of severing close ties with the European Union.

During a three-day trip to Africa, UK prime minister Theresa May visited Cape Town to meet with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Bertram Malgas

LONDON – Add Africa to the locations Theresa May is hoping will help shore up Britain’s post-Brexit future. The prime minister on Tuesday promised to tweak her government’s generous aid budget to open doors for UK companies on the continent of a billion people.

The longer-term shift to “trade not aid” will have to be dramatic if it is to compensate for the setback of severing close ties with the European Union.

There are strong reasons for Britain to promote African development. As May noted in a speech in Cape Town, a more prosperous continent is less likely to breed international jihadists or economic migrants eager to sneak into Europe. The economic rationale, however, looks more suspect.

Total trade with Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya – the stops on May’s three-country trip – amounted to £13.1 billion in 2016, according to UK government figures. That’s less than 2.5% of the £554 billion in goods and services that Britain exchanged with the European Union in the same year. In other words, if UK trade with the bloc drops by 2% after it departs, commerce with the three countries – which include Africa’s two largest economies – would have to almost double to make up the difference.

At the moment any pickup looks a stretch. Over the last decade, the value of UK-Africa trade has grown at around 1% a year – a trend that is likely to continue given the subdued economic trajectories in South Africa and Nigeria. Besides, the EU already has a trade deal with South Africa, suggesting limited scope for any dramatic gains.

Nor can Britain rely on a fountain of goodwill from its former colonial outposts, especially when compared with the diplomatic and commercial clout of China, far and away Africa’s biggest trading partner. Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator who is running for re-election next year, has been reluctant to join a pan-African free trade deal on the grounds of protecting domestic industry.

In contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a regular visitor, May is the first British leader to venture south of the Sahara in five years. While greater UK-Africa trade would be welcome, it’s a tiny plaster for Britain’s Brexit wounds.