Q&A: Linda McAvan on what aid stands to lose from Brexit

Linda McAvan, British MEP, chair of the European Parliament development committee. Photo by: Lukasz Kobus / European Union

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s development officials need to wake up to the fact they will soon be “outsiders” playing a “lobbyist” role in Brussels, according to Linda McAvan, a British member of the European Parliament and chair of the European Parliament’s development committee.

As Brexit uncertainty drags on, the aid community remains in the dark about if and how the United Kingdom and European Union can work together on development after Britain leaves the bloc.

“The U.K. will find themselves outsiders and another kind of lobbyist out here … It will be a shock.”

— Linda McAvan, British MEP, chair of the European Parliament development committee.

Both parties have a lot to lose in terms of development budgets and policies unless the Brexit negotiations can be settled amicably, McAvan — a veteran MEP who has been in the job for 20 years — told Devex. In 2016, the U.K. delivered £1.5 billion ($1.93 billion) of official development assistance through EU instruments, accounting for about 15 percent of the EU’s aid budget and 11 percent of the U.K.’s.

The draft Brexit agreement and political declaration put forward last month leave the door open for some kind of continued aid cooperation, promising to “establish a dialogue to enable strategies in the programming and delivery of development that are mutually reinforcing.” But details are vague, especially post-2020 when the transition deal and most current funding commitments end, and it remains unclear whether the draft agreement will pass a parliamentary vote.

Devex spoke to McAvan about what’s at stake for aid in the negotiations.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What does the current draft Brexit agreement mean for development?

Like so many other things about Brexit, we don’t know yet what the impact is going to be. All we’ve got on the table is a withdrawal agreement which has all the things that we expected — that the U.K. will pay its debts … in terms of development expenditure [and fulfilling existing commitments].

Then we’ve got this political declaration which has some really good … aspirations in it but of course those aspirations have to be put into practical language ... We’re not even at the beginning of the negotiations yet on the new future relationship.

What hints does the deal contain?

It talks about how the U.K. could contribute to the EU’s instruments and mechanisms, including coordination with EU delegations in third countries. In layperson’s terms, what they’re talking about is that the U.K. is obviously a key player on development policy and has been very influential in the trajectory of EU development policy so … they want to continue working together and finding ways to do it. In reality, the EU has been trying for years to work much more with third countries anyway … [including] Norway, Canada, and Switzerland.

But it won’t be the same as before, as we won’t be in the EU budget or a member state. Come the April 1st, things are going to change for the U.K. At the moment we have Department for International Development officials coming over to Brussels all the time and sitting in the council working groups … building up networks and contacts. Human relationships matter a lot in diplomacy … Britain is going to miss all of that [and] … I think that is underestimated.

The U.K. will find themselves outsiders and another kind of lobbyist out here … It will be a shock, [and] the end of 2020 is not far away. 

Is there a danger that the U.K. could be completely shut out of EU development policy?

I suppose yes, if we had a hard Brexit and relationships broke down because everything in this future declaration … is about trust and confidence; it’s about being a willing partner. We do hear voices in the U.K, unfortunately, which seem to be trying to alienate the EU. It depends on the politics of what happens.

Developing countries wouldn’t appreciate it either. I meet a lot of ambassadors and ministers and senior people … They say they don’t understand why Britain is leaving the EU.

In terms of development policy, what does the EU stand to lose through Brexit?

The U.K. has been very influential in shaping EU development policy — not just the government but the wider U.K. development community, including think tanks and NGOs. Most of my MEP colleagues, and also ministers and ambassadors, really value the U.K. … There’s a lot of feeling that the U.K. is a loss in this area. It’s not like some foreign policy areas [like defense] where the U.K. is seen as a brake on European-wide cooperation.

Of course, U.K. development policy will depend on who’s in power … [and] U.K. policy could shift. But up until now, DFID has had some good policies on gender and fragile states and I think that will be missed at the table.

The UK [also] has a very pro-poor policy … Other people argue that money should go where it’s in the interest of the EU … But we’ve spent a lot of time in the U.K. [arguing] to untie aid. There is a bit of a danger within the EU that some countries will push for more money to go into migration and border control, and less money into fragile states.

The European Commission controversially began adding disclaimers into aid contracts warning that U.K. NGOs could lose funding if no Brexit deal is agreed. Why do you think that happened?

It’s logical that if there’s no deal and the U.K. walks away and says, “we’re not paying our debts,” then the understandings we all have are off the table … The European Commission has lawyers telling them they must warn people … I know it’s hard for NGOs because it has a chilling effect on their partners and I don’t really know how we can get around that.

Over the coming weeks, as Britain hurtles toward its exit from the European Union in March 2019, Devex will be exploring the impact of Brexit on aid. Read more about what’s at stake for aid in the negotiations; the complex question of whether the U.K. could continue contributing to EU aid; and the exodus of U.K. NGOs. Comment below about topics you’d like to see covered.

About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.