Brexit: Five EU development policies the UK should reconsider

10 April 2017

The UK government triggered the long-awaited Article 50 on 29 March, initiating a two year process of Brexit negotiations. The following day, details of the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ were announced. The bill's title is misleading: no EU laws are repealed (yet), just copy and pasted into UK law. Nonetheless by March 2019 the bill will end the supremacy of EU Law over UK. As discussed here there are many reasons to be pessimistic about this from a development viewpoint. However, the EU is not a development panacea.

Here are five policies the UK government would do well to rethink:

1. Preferential access to the UK market

An obvious place to start is access to UK trade. The newly created Department for International Trade (DIT) has the unenviable task of negotiating replacements for EU trade agreements. Currently the EU's ‘Everything But Arms’ treaty allows quota and tariff-free access to EU markets for least developed countries. The UK should, at minimum, replicate this. More controversially, the EU is also negotiating free trade agreements with broader regional groups, which in return require the gradual opening of markets to the EU.

Independent from Europe, the UK could become a ‘trade for development’ model by expanding the EU’s non-reciprocal duty free access to more developing countries. Initially at least, this is preferable to reciprocal free trade agreements which come with liberalisation requirements. These requirements risk damaging emerging markets in developing countries by prematurely opening them up to competition. A nonreciprocal arrangement would also be relatively simple to implement; important when an understaffed DIT will be overworked negotiating deals with bigger trading partners.

2. More flexible rules of origin

The UK could further assist developing country exports by relaxing the EU’s rules of origin. These regulations determine whether goods whose production does not entirely occur in developing countries are applicable for preferential market access. Relaxing requirements on the origin of production inputs could help integrate developing countries into global value chains. Cutting the procedural red-tape would also be beneficial. There's some evidence to suggest that previous EU efforts in this direction have been successful.

3. Reform of agricultural subsidies

The EU's Common Agricultural Policy has long been controversial. Ian Mitchell at the Centre for Global Development describes it as ‘almost a complete waste of money, [that goes] to the wealthiest in society, and [is] also damaging to global development’. The UK alone spends £3.1 billion a year on agricultural subsidies. Major beneficiaries include estates owned party or wholly by the Queen. On a broader level, this in effect provides a subsidy to European farmers at the expense of those from developing countries.

Could the UK join Australian and New Zealand in scrapping agricultural subsidies? Currently subsidies are secured until 2020; after that, reform is possible. The UK has long advocated reform from within the EU. Unilateral action would be a developmentally-friendly use of its new found control.

4. Scientifically-justified restrictions on GMOs

The EU has long taken a risk-averse approach to regulating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Nation states are free to ban or restrict GMOs without recall to scientific evidence, and many do. This is despite GMOs being repeatedly found to be as safe as any other foods. Current regulations may unnecessarily hinder agricultural innovation in Africa, and a relaxation could help address issues of food scarcity. Developing countries may additionally struggle with the unwarranted regulations if they lack the capability to easily separate their GMO and non-GMO production.

5. Not incentivising biofuels at expense of global food security

EU policy has continued to allow the use of food-based biofuels to contribute to renewable energy targets. Well-intentioned maybe, but diverting crops from food to fuel markets may have had substantial implications for global food security. The demand for land from biofuel companies this generates has also led to the displacement of smallholder farmers, sometimes violently. The EU has resisted reform due to a substantial biofuel lobby, which Oxfam finds spends more on EU lobbying than tobacco companies. Britain should ensure that bioenergy is only incentivised if not to the detriment of food production.

It may be the case that the UK would have greater influence on these issues as a voice within the EU. However, an independent Britain that is ‘truly global’- as promised by Theresa May - would take action on these five policies.

Sam Sharp, MA Governance and Development Student and Research Assistant 2016/17

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