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Britain leaving the EU: How will #Brexit affect relations with Zimbabwe?

Alex T. Magaisa


There have been enquiries from Zimbabweans following this morning’s seismic result in the British Referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) #Brexit. Britain has voted to leave the EU, an historic decision which ends a 43-year formal relationship. This decision has already claimed a number of casualties – the British currency has fallen to record low levels, the FSTE 100 has dropped significantly and Prime Minister David Cameron has tendered his resignation.

Zimbabweans want to know what this means for them, if it means anything at all. This opinion must there be understood in that context: as addressing a particular constituency of Zimbabweans and therefore, limited in scope to the interests and concerns of that constituency.

Zimbabweans’ interest in the matter is in part a factor of an old former colonial relationship and also because of the recent tense and hostile relationship between the countries which has led to imposition of targeted sanctions against members of the ZANU PF establishment by the EU. Formerly a part of the British Empire, urban Zimbabweans still take an interest in various aspects of the old colonial master’s affairs. A large number of Zimbabweans who escaped their country’s dire political and economic situation have settled in Britain – a familiar pattern in post-independence Africa, whereby citizens of former colonies tend to gravitate towards the former imperial masters when things have gone wrong.

Politically, the land question has dominated the discourse of relations between Britain and Zimbabwe. When President Mugabe led the land revolution which saw the mass displacement and eviction of white commercial farmers after 2000, relations became even more strained. The era of Tony Blair’s premiership was arguably the worst phase of the hostilities between the countries as insults and criticisms were traded on a regular basis. Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa has claimed that Blair made a proposition for military engagement in Zimbabwe to remove the Mugabe regime, but that he had refused. The nature of the relationship between the two countries has been described by Miles Tendi as “mutual demonization”.

The view favoured and promoted by the ZANU PF government over the years is that the dispute has never been between Zimbabwe and the EU, but that it was a bi-lateral dispute with Britain as the former colonial master. It is against this background that most Zimbabweans are wondering whether the exit of Britain from the EU will result in a change of fortunes for Zimbabwe in so far as its relations with both the EU and Britain are concerned.

The EU has maintained sanctions against members of the Zimbabwean establishment since the early 2000s. However, the list has been significantly whittled down in recent years to cover just President Mugabe, his wife Grace and the Zimbabwe Defence Industries and an arms embargo. There are also suspended sanctions on 5 members of the security services. ZANU PF believes these targeted sanctions were in retaliation against the land reforms and that Britain was the prime mover behind the sanctions as it sought to protect its “kith and kin”. It is the alleged principal role of Britain in the EU sanctions regime that has Zimbabweans asking if the break-up in the formal relationship between Britain and the EU will result in any changes in EU policy towards Zimbabwe.

At first glance, if one takes the view that the EU sanctions regime was primarily moved and influenced by Britain, the easy conclusion would be that the EU approach to Zimbabwe, in the absence of Britain, will no longer be influenced by the latter and will therefore, be different. However, in my opinion, alluring though it might be, this deductive reasoning is too simplistic.

It is true that of all the EU countries, it is Britain that has a more proximate relation with Zimbabwe by virtue of their historical links. It is also fair to say that the land question has been a key factor in defining their relationship in recent years. But it is by no means the only factor. Britain had negotiated a good deal for the white land-owners at the Lancaster House Conference in 1979, which ushered independence to Zimbabwe but left the colonial land ownership system intact. The radical reforms that took place after 2000 changed this system and Britain took an interest in the matter. Critics have noted a softening in Britain’s approach towards Zimbabwe as the irreversibility of the radical land revolution has become more apparent in recent years, which seems to vindicate those who argued that the interest was largely influenced by the fate of the white commercial farmers.

In fact, there now seems to be a reversed situation where Zimbabwean opposition parties are the ones that have been complaining about Britain’s approach to the Zimbabwean government, which they see as appeasement or partiality towards one of the factions vying to succeed Mugabe. There seems to have been efforts between Zimbabwe and Britain aimed at re-engagement and certainly marking a break with the past where there was clear hostility and belligerence. So although EU sanctions have remained, there has been a gradual process of re-engagement with Britain in particular, especially after the 2013 elections.

Indeed, business delegations have been exchanged between the two countries and early next month, an economic and investment conference on Zimbabwe is due to be held in London. Therefore, whether or not Britain had exited from the EU, the fact of the matter is that a process of re-engagement was already in motion. This unlikely to change as a result of the decision to leave the EU.

It is also important to note that despite the political hostilities, Britain has maintained a strong presence in Zimbabwe as one of the country’s biggest donors through agencies like the Department for International Development (DFID) which has been helping in various programs, including poverty alleviation. In 2001, it announced that it was increasing aid to Zimbabwe to more than £100 million a year. It also played an important tole in supporting the education sector during the GNU period, supplying books and equipment to stricken schools. This aid support is not related to Britain’s EU membership and has been there regardless of the EU sanctions or political challenges between the two countries. Whether this changes will depend will depend on the new Britain’s policy on foreign aid after Cameron. But this would not be a Zimbabwe-specific policy.

An important dynamic is the imminent change in the leadership of Britain after Cameron announced his resignation which will be effective by October. Who takes over will also define Britain’s new foreign policy, without the influence and constraints of the EU. One potential candidate is of interest as far as Zimbabwe is concerned: Boris Johnson. In 2015 he criticised Britain’s approach towards Zimbabwe during the Blair era. His view was that the New Labour Government has reneged on its obligations in relation to land in Zimbabwe under the Lancaster House Constitutional Agreement which paved the way to independence in 1980. He seems to hold the view, which is consistent with claims made by Mugabe and others that Britain committed to financially support the land reform programme. It would be interesting to see how he handles the Zimbabwe question were he to succeed Cameron as Britain’s Prime Minister.

In regards to the EU, while Britain’s influence in the regional bloc cannot be underplayed, it is also important not to overstate it to the detriment of other factors that influence EU policy towards Zimbabwe. In particular, in regards to the land question in Zimbabwe, it is important to note that there were other European countries apart from Britain which were also affected and concerned by the land revolution. This is partly because of what it represented as a phenomenon and more importantly, because their own nationals were directly affected. I have previously written on two important international arbitration cases which Zimbabwe lost: the Funnekotter and Pezold

These were cases in which Dutch, German and Swiss nationals sued the Zimbabwean government at the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in respect of land which was violently and forcibly acquired during the land revolution. These nationals were protected by Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (BIPPAs) between The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. They demonstrate that the land revolution did not simply affect and rile the British, and that whatever influence Britain might have had, it is important not to downplay the fact that other EU countries had their interests to protect, too. Indeed some of these EU countries continue to have an interest in their nationals’ interests in areas such as the Save Conservancy.

All this means the exit of Britain is no magic wand to repairing relations between Zimbabwe and the EU and Britain. It is true, of course, that Zimbabwe will now have to negotiate its way with Britain separately from the EU. But just as there have been tentative moves towards re-engagement with Britain, Zimbabwe and the EU’s relations have long been the subject of progressive re-engagement even before 2013. I recall that opposition parties before 2013 were expressing discomfort at what they thought was the then EU ambassador’s efforts to appease ZANU PF. Will the EU’s re-engagement with Zimbabwe be accelerated after Britain leaves the EU? Much depends on the extent to which Britain influenced or constrained the EU’s policy towards Zimbabwe. As I have stated, the EU has its own concerns as a regional bloc and would be a gross overestimation to credit its entire policy to British influence and interests alone.

I should point out that despite the rhetoric on sanctions, Zimbabwe businesses, especially in the agricultural sector, continue to access the UK market. Zimbabweans living in the UK have in recent months been posting images from major UK supermarkets of agricultural products originating from Zimbabwe, an indication that there is no ban on Zimbabwe exports to the UK. If Zimbabwe exploits its agricultural potential, which is vast, there is no reason why it cannot sell more goods to the UK market. It is important therefore not to buy the propaganda that Zimbabwe is totally restricted from UK markets, because it is not.

Finally, it is important to remember that while the referendum has delivered a verdict for Britain to leave the EU, eventual exit will take about two years in terms of existing treaty arrangements – what is being referred to as the Article 50 process. Meanwhile, Britain will still be a member of the EU, even during the run-up to Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections. Things are not going to change overnight. What needs to be analysed therefore is the long term impact of Britain’s self-imposed isolation from the rest of Europe rather than any immediate impact. Long term, relations between Zimbabwe and Britain will no longer be negotiated through the larger EU bloc but on a bi-lateral basis and that will, of course, bring its own different dynamics.

It’s far too soon to judge the impact of this historic decision. The truth of course is that we are a very small nation and the British have very big issues to deal with right now, including the stability and unity of their own Union. There’s a tendency among some Zimbabweans to elevate our profile to some major global player which we are not. Going forward, our foreign policy ought to be smarter and more nuanced than it has been in recent years. ~Brexit adds a new dimension to international relations and politics which needs careful thought and management.

Far more important for me is the impact of Britain’s exit on the rest of the world. The EU has to be understood in its historical context, as part of a progressive response to and against the rise of nationalism and its devastating impact on Europe in the previous century up to the Second World War. European integration has been an important part of the fragile global balance of power. The hope is that Britain’s departure and isolation does not trigger a return to the old nationalisms, further rise in right-wing politics, closed mentalities and associated hostilities. The world would be a more unsafe place.



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