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Interview: “We Will Put Emphasis On Bilateral Relationships”

Following the historic Brexit Referendum or leave the EU vote by the United Kingdom (UK), the British High Commissioner to Cameroon, Brian Olley, sheds light on the way forward.

The Brexit Referendum last Thursday 23 June 2016 has left many people wondering why the British are so angry against the European Union.

Certainly, the referendum that took place in the United Kingdom was a historic vote because the British people voted clearly -52 per cent against 48 per cent, to leave the European Union. This is democracy in action and we must respect the will of the people. Our job now is to implement this exit from the European Union.

However, I do take issue with the assertion that somehow the British people are angry. I do not think that this was the case at all. The millions of people who voted had many different reasons, and it is not for me to try and decide what those reasons were. But the outcome was very clear and we must now start the negotiations for the exit from the European Union.

Yes, there were individual reasons the voters had, but the economy, immigration and other topics dominated the campaign during the run-up to the referendum. Is immigration such a big problem to the British?

As I say, the over 30 million people all had varied reasons for voting. Clearly, the politicians who were supporting the exit from the European Union and those who wanted to remain within the Union both had immigration and the economic arguments very powerfully presented.

The people of the United Kingdom listened to the arguments very carefully and made their decision which is very clear. My job now as a civil servant is to follow the will of the ministers and in a democracy, we have to listen to the people.

As a flagship country within the Commonwealth, the UK has set an example that other member countries like Cameroon will start wondering what next?

Let me remind you of the fact that the UK was the fifth biggest economy in the world as of last week and it is the same today and even tomorrow, it will be the fifth largest economy. So, there is no immediate change either in our relationship with the European Union or indeed with our place in the world. Of course, the relationship that we have with Africa dates many years back. We have historic, cultural, and many other links which will have to continue.

I look forward to seeing those links increasingly strong in the future. The Commonwealth has been a huge success and our relationship with the institution has not changed. The United Kingdom remains a member of the G7, we remain a member of the G20, we remain a member of NATO, and we remain a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. So, we are a major player on the world scene and that will continue.

If the UK happens to disintegrate as Scotland is already threatening to leave, will that not be an issue?

Well, we are in the very early days of the vote and people are still taking in what has happened. Note is being taken. We have not yet started the processes to leave the European Union. You noticed as you arrived here (residence of the High Commissioner) this evening that we are still flying a European Union flag next door to the United Kingdom flag and we remain members of the European Union.

What has happened is that the advisory referendum to the government has taken place and the people of the United Kingdom have said they wish to leave. Concerning the process for starting the negotiations to leave, the Prime Minister has already announced that he would not be doing that. He has said he would not be the person to lead the ship to leave the European Union. He wishes to stay until next October to find out who his successor is at the Conservative Party Conference. After that, whoever takes over from Prime Minister David Cameron, will therefore be in a position to say when to start the negotiations.

But there is also this dominant opinion across Europe that the UK as a strong member of the EU has set a bad example? 

Certainly, we have very strong links with the European Union, we are not however and have never been in the Schengen Area, nor are we in the Euro Zone. But of course, we have extremely strong commercial and trade links with Europe and this will continue. Our job now is to find a way forward, negotiate with Europe, which is in the best interest of both the United Kingdom and Europe.

And this leaves many people wondering why for over 40 years the UK has been one leg into the EU and one leg out?

I think each Member State of the EU has at different times had a slightly different type of relationship with Europe, and that has been no different with the UK. We have been very thoughtful and careful about each decision, each step and this is what we must be going forward now to ensure that the relationship that we have with Europe in the future is to the mutual benefit of both the United Kingdom and Europe.

We must admit that democracy is a very difficult experience even for the Prime Minister of the UK who has now resigned?

Well I think what we saw in the last 24 hours (Saturday 25 June 2016) is a clear example of democracy in action. The people have spoken, they have voted very clearly and therefore our job now is to implement their wishes. That is exactly what we will do.

Some analysts of the referendum say British people do not want to be bullied, given the strong arguments that came up during the campaigns about the British economy being stronger within the EU.

There are lots of people who are now trying to analyse the results and it is true that many members of the private sector, many international organisations, were speculating about what would happen if we were to leave. The fact is that we are now in that position where we are heading for a departure from the European Union and it is for all of us to find the best way forward, which is in our mutual interest.

The United Kingdom and Africa have had a very long and productive relationship and we have put emphasis on the partnership for prosperity. We will be ensuring that the trade links and the role of the private sector in Africa remains as it is. Indeed, I will very much hope that if you were to ask me in a year’s time how that relationship has changed, I will say that our relationship is strengthened. And I think we will also be putting a great deal of emphasis on the relationship with Cameroon.

Can we objectively say that no matter the reasons for UK’s withdrawal from the EU, they would not have an impact on the links that countries like Cameroon and other African nations have with either the EU or the UK?

Certainly, the historic and cultural links will remain very strong. Inevitably, the fact that the United Kingdom is currently part of the European Union and will not be in the future means that there are some trade agreements that we now have to renegotiate and there is a lot of complex negotiations that have to take place. 

And it is too early to understand what effect precisely that would have. But certainly, the objective is to ensure that the United Kingdom’s trade and commercial links as well as the cultural and historic links are as strong as they have ever been with Cameroon. 

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