How might Brexit affect UK overseas aid spending?

The EU has been one of the UK’s largest multilateral aid partners. At the time of writing, it is unclear whether any UK aid will continue to be channelled through the EU after Brexit.

This Insight will consider possibilities for UK overseas aid spending in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Reallocating overseas aid spending

Some of the UK overseas aid budget is currently spent through the EU – just under 10% in 2018. It includes humanitarian aid efforts and international development programmes. Most is spent via the development part of the EU budget. A significant amount is also spent via the European Development Fund.

UK contributions to EU overseas aid activities look all but certain to end in the event of no-deal. The UK and EU could agree interim stand-still arrangements for this policy area, but none are currently in place.

As such, it is reasonable to anticipate that about 10% of the UK’s 2019/20 aid budget will potentially be available for reallocation after Brexit.

Will overseas aid spending drop in the event of no-deal?

If the UK stops contributing to all EU aid activities, this will not result in it spending less money on aid. The UK Government is legally obliged to continue to spend 0.7% of gross national income as aid each year. It will, however, mean that this aid will have to be spent differently.

Future cooperation

Alternatively, some or all of the UK aid budget currently allocated to the EU could still be spent through its mechanisms after Brexit, in the context of the future UK-EU relationship. Detailed negotiations on this future relationship are yet to begin.

A no-deal exit might make this more difficult to agree but does not necessarily rule it out. The EU already has agreements with non-EU countries covering specific aid programmes.

Overseas aid in the Political Declaration

In November 2018, the UK Government and the EU agreed a Political Declaration Setting out the Framework for the Relationship between the UK and the EU. At the time of writing, the UK Parliament has not approved this document and it could be subject to significant amendment.

The Political Declaration includes overseas aid as part of an “ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership” that the UK Government and EU both say they want in future. It refers to the need for dialogue and cooperation, as well as for appropriate mechanisms to be created. But the Declaration does not provide a detailed account about how the partnership will operate in this policy area.

The Declaration explicitly references possible future UK participation in the EU’s overseas aid programmes, which could involve financial contributions.

However, current European Commission proposals for future EU aid funding emphasise converting multiple funding streams into a single one. This may not necessarily offer the openness and flexibility towards non-member states which the UK Government has said it would like to see. In May 2019, a previous Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, described the European Commission as the “block” to future cooperation on international development and called on it to “see sense”.

Ongoing uncertainty

So for now it remains unclear whether (and if so, how) the UK might participate in EU aid activities in future as a third country. Answers must await the outcome of the Brexit process.

There has also been concern that the European Commission may decide that UK-based non-governmental organisations will no longer receive EU funding in the event of a no-deal Brexit. In response, the UK Government has pledged to cover any loss of EU funds in such circumstances (see also the Government’s guidance on delivering overseas aid programmes if there’s no Brexit deal).

A more detailed explanation of the UK’s aid spending, and a discussion of the possible ways in which it could change after Brexit, is covered in a House of Commons Library briefing, UK aid: frequently asked questions.

Further reading


About the author: Jon Lunn is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs.