Opinionista David Africa 17 January 2019

European Politics and Africa – The Paradox of Political Madness and Strategic Rationality

The UK government lost a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday night on its draft agreement to withdraw from the European Union. The scope of the defeat (the motion was defeated by 230 votes) is a reflection of two parallel, if contradictory dynamics that are coming to shape the UK’s position towards the EU and specifically the decision to leave the union on 29 March 2019.

On the one hand, the entire Brexiteer movement is shaped by a phenomenon in British politics driven by a failure to come to terms with the UK’s position in the world seven or more decades after its empire disintegrated. The sense of loss, correlating with a false sense of itself as a powerful nation and a special place in global affairs has produced a popular vote in support of a vote to leave the EU, and the emergence of politicians like an increasingly Trumpist Boris Johnson or the eccentric and ancient Jacob Rees-Mogg – politicians whose popularity and politics are based on an exhortation towards “Making Britain Great Again”.

The proliferation of this “new” politics is not merely a longing for the “good old days” of empire, but driven to a large extent by the increasing rejection of fact-based politics and its replacement with “alternative facts”. The positions pronounced by pro-Brexit politicians, both in respect of the UK’s relative power to the EU, and the intent of the voters when they voted to leave the EU, seem at odds with reality when subjected to even the most cursory scrutiny. The fact that, after the UK Prime Minister Theresa May lost her vote in the Commons last night, Boris Johnson suggested that the vote strengthen the PM’s hand in negotiations with the EU, and that she can now demand further fundamental concessions from the EU, is a reflection of the madness that now drives much of British politics.

At the same time as this madness raises it head, it appears that the search for rational answers to the Brexit conundrum among parliamentarians is gaining momentum, with Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum pushing back against the madness that produced and kept alive the political decision to leave the EU. Paradoxically last night’s defeat of the government, engineered at least in part by the hard-line Brexiteers, might now shift the momentum in parliament and in the country more broadly towards a moderation, or even a rescinding of the decision to leave the European Union.

This clash between rational politics and one based on “alternative facts” and imperial nostalgia is not a uniquely British affliction, but one that now dominates the political contestation in the US and across Europe. It should not surprise us that the politics of alternative facts and nostalgia is rooted in white nationalism, at a time when the political and economic shifts in geopolitical power are decisively moving eastwards. This politics introduces new dangers into the global political environment, where the elements of fear, honour and interest, identified by Thucydides, the Greek historian, as the key motives for war, are all present.

The Brexit phenomenon in the UK and the self-obsession with internal dynamics in Europe has resulted in myopia in the international relations of many European countries exactly at a time when the need for Euro-African partnership in trade and security is not only required but eminently possible. In an era where Chinese economic intervention and a new US Africa strategy likely to increase conflict are becoming the key drivers in Africa’s geopolitics, the European inability to engage more actively on the continent will have negative effects for European states.

Are there opportunities for African states, together with European partners to reshape the Afro-European partnership to the mutual benefit of all? Can South Africa’s tenure on the United Nations Security Council, perhaps in partnership with the Germans and their strategy of sustaining a rules-based multilateral order, be a key basis of such a partnership? Is South Africa wishes to regain its eminence in African politics and optimise its position on the UNSC, such a partnership could create new opportunities and strategic scenarios that can serve South African and African interests well. DM

David Africa is a National Security and Geopolitical analyst with a specific interest in African security. He directs the African Centre for Security and Intelligence Praxis (ACSIP), a think and do-tank committed to developing South African national security capability. David writes here in his personal capacity.

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