The referendum on June 23 offers voters a binary choice on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union: remain or leave. In this commentary, Simon Maxwell, chair of the European Think Tanks Group, explains why reformers shouldn't find themselves empty-handed. Photo by: slimmer_jimmer / CC BY-NC-ND

The referendum on June 23 offers voters a binary choice on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union: remain or leave. What a pity that there is not a third option: “Remain, if …” or “Remain, provided that…” In global development, and more generally, that would give those of us with a vote the mandate to come flying out of the starting blocks the day after a positive result.

“Remain and reform” has been a subtext in the U.K. campaign, explicitly in the speeches of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, but also in other corners of the battlefield. For example, the Conservative campaign to remain in the EU is called “Conservatives for Reform in Europe.” The generally skeptical think tank, Open Europe, has worked with a Polish counterpart to publish an agenda for long-term EU reform.

Many of the changes proposed for the future relate to the governance of the EU, the operation of the euro or the single market, and, of course, the management of migration. Wider global issues also feature, especially in relation to trade and security policy. Thus, there is an emerging debate about the future of the EU after a vote for the U.K. to remain a member.

Some may find that disappointing. An understandable reaction would be for everyone to breathe a sigh of relief and resume business as usual. But in fact, the EU itself is committed to a series of reviews that will inevitably change the way it approaches international development. In June, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, will present a new global strategy, hopefully rooted in — and certainly influenced by — the Sustainable Development Goals.

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At the same time, the European Commission will be hard at work on a new European Consensus on Development Policy, setting an agenda that will bind all member states as well as the various institutions in Brussels. Later in the year, progress will be made in reviewing the relationship between the EU and the 79 countries of the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group, setting the stage for a renewal (or not) of the 2000 Cotonou Agreement in 2020. And then, next year, in 2017, there will be a review of all the EU’s financial instruments, including the Development Cooperation Instrument and the European Development Fund.

It is not difficult to imagine that all these discussions might lead the EU in very different directions. On the one hand, a global strategy driven by security concerns and the deployment of hard power; trade policy more mercantilist, looking ever-inwards; climate action the prisoner of vested interests in declining sectors; and aid stagnating in volume, increasingly diverted to paying the costs of refugees in Europe, and with the balance focused on conflict countries in the Middle East. On the other hand: a strong orientation in the new global strategy to sustainable development and to human rights; reinforcement of the commitment to trade liberalization and to trade policy that benefits the poor; climate policy that leads the world in the race to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius; and aid that both increases in volume and improves in quality.

Is a benign outcome more likely if the U.K. votes to remain? My guess is yes. This is partly because Brexit would cause great uncertainty, even to the point of plunging the EU into a crisis from which it might not easily recover. At the very least, budgets would fall by about 15 percent and the EU would lose access to important U.K. assets, especially military and police. There would be severe dislocations across the range of global engagements.

More importantly, I would like to think that the U.K. has something to offer in the coming debate. That does not mean “we” are always progressive, or right, or as sensitive as we should be to the views and interests of others. It is probably not surprising that we in the U.K. development community are sometimes described as arrogant or overly assertive. Less “Perfidious Albion,” perhaps, more “Polemical Albion.” Nevertheless, there are a lot of us committed to this area — researchers, NGOs, think tanks, business communities, politicians, media organizations, civil servants. Would it really be helpful not to have economist and academic Nick Stern or economic and public policy expert Paul Collier at the table? Oxfam GB or Save the Children UK? Unilever (well, the British half!) on sustainability? The BBC? The Department for International Development? The Overseas Development Institute? The Institute of Development Studies?

Of course, the U.K. might vote to leave the EU. But on the assumption that it does not, it is important that reformers do not find themselves empty-handed. That is why discussion on the future matters. The European Think Tanks Group, which I chair, certainly takes that view. We work across national boundaries to help shape European development policy. Our strongly expressed view is that the problems the world faces require new forms of collective action, and that the EU must reform in order to play its part.

Thus, a vote to remain will mark the end of one campaign, and the beginning of another.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Simon Maxwell

    Simon Maxwell is executive chair of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. He spent 10 years overseas with U.N. Development Program and the United Kingdom aid program, in Kenya, India and Bolivia, and then 15 years at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. He was director of the Overseas Development Institute. In addition to CDKN, he is chair of the European Think Tanks Group and specialist adviser to the International Development Select Committee in the U.K. Parliament. Simon Maxwell is a former president of the Development Studies Association of the U.K. and Ireland. In 2007, he was awarded a CBE for services to international development.