Dismissing predictions of economic catastrophe if the United Kingdom fails to reach a substantive withdrawal agreement with the European Union, including by her own ministers, the UK premier Theresa May is currently touring the continent of Africa in pursuit of post-Brexit trade deals with the region’s developing economies. The right-wing press in London is spinning the visit for all its worth, boosting the Conservative Party leader’s claims that Britain will become the largest external investor in Africa by 2050. Which will no doubt amuse the Chinese who have poured billions of dollars into the continent since the 1990s and whose road and railway networks criss-cross the region’s mineral- and oil-rich states.
Like the belief that the old British Commonwealth of Nations can replace the EU’s common market, the UK’s hopes of finding equal or superior wealth outside of Europe are largely delusional. A couple of cursory facts quickly dissipate London’s forlorn hopes of mercantile lebensraum. Combining the output of the separate economies of the African Union (AU), which consists of all fifty-five nation-states on the continent, and by measuring GDP through purchasing power parity (PPP) the organisation’s total economy equals some US$1.5 trillion. In contrast, the EU’s GDP via PPP is estimated to be US$22.0 trillion. And unlike the AU, that GDP exists under the aegis of a near-unitary single market and customs union. While Britain will continue to have substantial trade with and within Europe after its exit, the losses created by a no-agreement withdrawal are hardly going to be off-set by looking to Africa. Especially when the European Union already has major trade deals and partnerships across the continent.