LONDON - Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain will put “people before passports” as he pledged a fairer migration system at an investment summit for African leaders in London Monday.
Britain wants to strike trade new deals with fast-growing economies in Africa and beyond after it officially leaves the European Union on January 31. Prime Minister Johnson wooed African leaders with his now familiar message: Britain is going global after Brexit.
"More than half the world's fastest, 15 fastest growing economies are in Africa,” Johnson told delegates at the conference. “Two-thirds of African economies are expanding faster than the global average. Africa is the future and the UK has a huge and active role to play in that future.”
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Britain has some catching up to do. Annual two-way trade with Africa is around $46 billion, less than a quarter that of China, the continent’s biggest trading partner. Prime Minister Johnson acknowledged the competition.
"China, Russia, Germany. I'm told [there] is going to be a conference in France fairly soon. But in the words of an old Akan proverb that I picked up in Ghana, all fingers are not the same,” Johnson said. “There is wisdom in these Akan proverbs. All fingers are not the same and all countries are not the same, and the UK boasts a breadth and depth of expertise that simply cannot be matched by any other nation. And that's why we are one of the biggest partners for countries across Africa.”
Opening the door
As part of his push to boost trade with Africa, Johnson pledged an overhaul of Britain’s visa system, with an end to free movement of EU citizens after Brexit.
"By putting people before passports we will be able to attract the best talent from around the world, wherever they may be.” Johnson also pledged to end British investment in coal mining and coal-fired power plants overseas.
So will Africa benefit from Brexit?
In an interview with VOA following his keynote speech at the London summit, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Mukhisa Kituyi told VOA it will take time.
"There is one reality you cannot run away from: for a long time to come, Europe is going to be the most important trading partner of Britain,” Kituyi said. “And the main political and economic attention about international market access is going to be how Britain trades with Europe after Brexit. So that is at the core of it, whatever anyone may say. This is the first building block. The next building block is the special transatlantic relationship. The third building block is certain historical partners of Britain… Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. So these are realities. Incrementally, embracing Africa is going to be fourth or fifth stage after more urgent priorities.
"So for Africa, the test of success in Britain opening up in a new relationship will be seen on whether they can make a better market access offer, capacity building offer, trade facilitation offer, than what Africa receives under the economic partnership agreement with Brussels.”
Royals join charm offensive
African leaders attended a reception at Buckingham Palace Monday evening. The royal family – itself in turmoil over Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to quit their senior roles - joined the charm offensive. Host Prince William told his guests that “The African continent holds a very special place in my heart.”
But do African nations embrace the vision of a "global Britain"? Sixteen African leaders attended the London summit, far fewer than the dozens of leaders who attended similar recent events in Japan, Russia and China.
Mukhisa Kituyi says the world must respect Britain’s democratic choice — but its presence will be missed in the EU.
"Britain has been a voice of consensus building. It has been a voice of responsible engagement. That was taken off the table and leaves Brussels a poorer place. Secondly, I believe that the burden of transition is going to be higher in cost, than the benefits of Brexit.”
Britain has made its ambitions clear: to strike out after Brexit, to Africa and beyond. But by far the majority of economic forecasts, including the government’s own analysis, show that leaving the European Union — the world’s biggest free trading bloc — will likely slow Britain’s economy for several years.