UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson pitched his post-Brexit vision for Britain as the nucleus of a new global free trade arrangement during the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London on Monday.
Attempting to stir up enthusiasm for the future of the UK as a lucrative investor in Africa, Johnson reaffirmed his position that the UK's withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January would be beneficial for trade.
He called for Britain to become the torch-bearer for a new "global free trading area” and vowed to expand existing links with African nations, promising to extend and enlarge links between African nations and the UK.
Mr Johnson sought to pitch to African leaders the UK's distinct status, declaring that London was the “ultimate one stop-shop for the ambitious growing international economy”.
“This is a competitive world, you have many suitors”, Mr Johnson said to an audience of high-ranking African business and political leaders who attended the conference, citing China, Russia and even ongoing fellow EU member states Germany and France as rivals in the scramble for African investment opportunities.
Mr Johnson highlighted the Bombardier monorail project in Cairo, on which UK-built trains will run, as part of efforts to capitalise on links developed through the UK’s colonial past on the continent and told the African representatives that he wants Britain to be their "investment partner of choice".
The event also included talks on sustainable trade and investment opportunities in clean energy. The UK pledged an end to state investment in thermal coal mining or overseas coal power plants, given the UK's set target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
The government also pledged to boost clean energy investments and technological development in African countries.
"The UK also announced new initiatives and funding which will: strengthen the joint trading relationship, support African countries in their ambition to transform their economies, launch a major new partnership with the city of London, turbo-charge infrastructure financing, and enable Africa’s clean energy potential", the statement said.
The UK also announced private sector infrastructure projects with five African countries.
"The UK will establish partnerships with Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda in order to design a new facility to plan, deliver and support finance to a range of infrastructure projects across Africa that are attractive to businesses and investors", said Secretary of State for International Development Alok Sharma during the summit.
Attempting to soothe any potential concerns that industry would suffer post-Brexit due to reduced immigration levels, Mr Johnson pledged to put “people before passports”.
“Africa is the future and the UK has a huge and active role to play in that future,” he said.
“We will be a partner, your partner, through thick and thin".
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said during the summit that an investment opportunity awaited Commonwealth countries but stressed visas as an essential part of any post-Brexit agreements.
"While many in the African diaspora enjoy considerable benefits from life in the West, they do not always feel at the heart of the community", he said while speaking to The Times.
“A renewed sense that there are ties that bind us … could act as a spur to encourage togetherness and the certainty of belonging".
This could be potentially politically cumbersome for the Johnson government however as concerns over immigration was a strong imperative behind the Brexit victory in 2016, according to an Ipsos Mori poll a week before the referendum.
Free movement as part of European Union membership is poised to end by the end of the year but developing countries are lining up to ask for restrictions on living and working in the UK dropped in return for improved trade relationships.
India has already claimed that it is looking for concessions on visa travel from India to the UK and pressured the May government to drop them.
The summit serves as the UK’s largest free trade effort in 2020 and was attended by 16 African leaders.
The UK will officially leave the EU this month and will then enter into a transition period when it will continue to remain part of the EU Single Market and Customs Union until 31 December, during which time it intends to negotiate a new free trade arrangement with the EU.