A better, fairer UK trade policy with Africa

Dr Stephen Hurt

A major consequence of Brexit has been the need to strike new trade deals with countries beyond Europe. For Dr Stephen Hurt, it’s an opportunity for the UK government to rethink the trade relationship with African countries, giving them more scope to choose their own paths to development.

Stephen’s longstanding research into the EU’s trading relationship with Africa equipped him with the expertise to challenge the status quo.

Working with policymakers and thinkers in the field, he has contributed directly to contemporary debates on the UK’s future trade policy with Africa, at government and international levels.

Challenging thinking

UK split from EU

Stephen’s research goes back many years before the 2016 EU Referendum. In 2003, he challenged the EU’s claim that its relationship with African states was a genuine ‘partnership’. His research instead highlighted the dominance of the EU and how its existing ‘free trade’ approach hampers Africa’s ability to pursue its own development.

Following the Referendum, he challenged orthodox thinking that the UK’s approach might simply replicate the existing agreements between the EU and African partners; or be an opportunity for ‘Global Britain’ to access untapped export markets.

Forging a different trade relationship

Stephen worked closely with key policymakers, bringing his research expertise to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa. His essay ‘UK Africa Trade within and outside the EU’, was key to their 2017 report, which was cited in parliamentary debates.

Also in 2017, after providing written evidence for a White Paper on future trade policies, Stephen was invited to take part in a policy roundtable discussion at the Department for International Trade. Thanking him for his input, organisers declared that his focus on the EU’s trade and development policy to African countries, ‘helped us gain a better understanding of the issues and will inform our future policy’.

As part of a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry in December 2017, Stephen argued for a unilateral trade arrangement offering preferences for African exports to the UK. As well as spurring economic development in African countries, this would align with the UK’s obligation to deliver on its commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Stephen also challenged thinking at an EU-level. In July 2018, he was invited to the European Parliament in Brussels, to speak as the only academic expert at a Commonwealth Forum roundtable meeting. A number of African diplomats attended the discussion and many were supportive of Stephen’s analysis and in particular, the critique of the assumed benefits of free trade for African development.

Shipping containers

Boosting public awareness

Increasing public understanding of UK-Africa trade relations is another driver for Stephen’s work, borne out by his written analysis on public media platforms and media appearances. They include a live interview on Sky News in January 2020 ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s opening address to the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London. 

Campaigning for trade justice

Stephen’s collaboration with the Trade Justice Movement (TJM), which campaigns for more progressive trade policies, has also fuelled public awareness. His input on a podcast in 2017, designed to publicise TJM’s work, led to Senior Advisor Ruth Bergan commenting, ‘your extensive knowledge, based on your published research, provided some insightful reflections on EPAs [economic partnership agreements] and UK policy post-Brexit’.

Lessons learned

Container ship

Stephen played a significant role in bringing together two All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) - for Trade Justice and for Africa, resulting in a parliamentary symposium in January 2020 at Westminster.

As well as presenting on his research findings to participants including leading UK and African policymakers, Stephen led a roundtable discussion. Its conclusion was that Brexit provides an opportunity to rethink UK Africa trade relations to ensure that future agreements are mutually beneficial.

Following the symposium, a policy briefing with Stephen as lead author was published by the APPG for Africa. This set out a number of key recommendations for the UK government and trade policymakers. A co-authored article with Chi Onwurah MP, chair of the APPG for Africa, summarising the findings was subsequently published in African Arguments.

Rethinking the future

Stephen’s painstaking work underpins the contemporary policy debate on the importance of fairer trade policies with African countries. Calling policymakers to account, his research shines a light on how future trade arrangements could empower African countries to develop, building their own more sustainable economic futures.

Image credits:

Globe photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash
Container ship photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash