LONDON — Aid experts and NGOs have warned of potential disruption to their work as U.K. lawmakers rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday night and launched a vote of no confidence in the government.
“Both the U.K. government and the EU must listen to voices of civil society here in the U.K., the EU, and developing countries to ensure that any change in the U.K.’s status doesn’t negatively affect the poorest.”— Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns, Bond
Members of Parliament voted 202-432 against the withdrawal agreement, casting yet greater uncertainty over if and how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union in just two months’ time. The U.K.’s international development secretary Penny Mordaunt voted in favor of the deal, despite previously saying she opposed it.
The result increases the risk of a cliff-edge Brexit, in which the transition period that was expected to give the country — and its NGOs — two years to adjust to the deal and agree on a future relationship would be lost. Promises made on development cooperation in the agreement would also be torn up.
Among the most immediate issues for the aid community are access to funding; whether EU-U.K. aid spending channels will continue, with the potential for a shortfall if they are suddenly cut off; and the loss of U.K. civil society influence.
“Parliament’s vote … may affect EU-funded U.K. humanitarian and development efforts and lead to the interruption of DFID’s [Department for International Development] vital and lifesaving work,” said Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond, the network of U.K. aid organizations.
“Both the U.K. government and the EU must listen to voices of civil society here in the U.K., the EU, and developing countries to ensure that any change in the U.K.’s status doesn’t negatively affect the poorest,” she added.
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The Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement offered certain assurances on development cooperation, including that the U.K. would honor its existing financial commitments. That includes ongoing contributions to the €30 billion-European Development Fund ($34.1 billion) — the EU’s main tool for providing development assistance to countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific — until 2020, when its current funding cycle expires. U.K. organizations would also be able to access EDF funds until that point.
Emmanuel de Groof from the European Center for Development Policy Management, a Netherlands-based think tank, said “those two reassurances ... have now been lost.”
However, Mikaela Gavas, visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development Europe, told Devex she thinks the U.K. will continue paying its development dues to the EU even in a no-deal scenario.
“The U.K. has said it’s committed to being a ‘good development partner’ and so essentially that means whatever the outcome [of Brexit negotiations] they will honor their commitments to the EDF and the EU budgets,” she said.
“It makes sense for the U.K. to do that because … if they don’t … it will mean less money going to developing countries, a sudden halt in the programs ... For the larger development endeavour, it will have pretty dire consequences.”
Whatever the final outcome, U.K. organizations will remain eligible for EU funding for work in least-developed and highly indebted countries, due to the country’s membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. However, in a no-deal scenario they would not be able to apply for funding for programs elsewhere. In addition, existing contracts with the EU could be cut off, although the U.K. government has agreed to underwrite some of these. Some NGOs have started opening offices elsewhere in the EU in an effort to guarantee continued access to funding.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, De Groof believes there would still be opportunities for the U.K. and the EU to continue working together on development, such as in-country cooperation.
“There are manifold ways in which there can be development cooperation in the future, but long-term thinking is needed… [and] it needs to be done in consultation with developing countries,” he said.
But the main issue for U.K. NGOs is the ongoing uncertainty left by the vote. The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, triggered a vote of no confidence in the government immediately afterwards. That motion was being debated and voted on during Wednesday. If it passes, parliament has two weeks to approve a new government. If it does not pass, May has insisted she will remain in power, and will work with other parties to try and agree on a new Brexit deal, which would need to be approved both by EU leaders and U.K. parliamentarians.
Even if a withdrawal agreement is reached, most of the negotiations on a future relationship will take place further down the line.
“There remains considerable uncertainty and we will not know what the future U.K. and EU partnership on development cooperation will look like until the whole future relationship is negotiated following a withdrawal agreement,” Godfrey explained.