Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.

Reflections: UK must accept it’s no longer a world power

Published Dec 4, 2018, 7:28 am IST
Updated Dec 4, 2018, 7:28 am IST
US President Donald Trump’s cavalier attitude proves that other countries won’t be rushing to strike trade deals with a standalone Britain.
British Prime Minister Theresa May (Photo: AP)
 British Prime Minister Theresa May (Photo: AP)

It’s taken an ethnic Ghanaian to remind the British that their country might be reduced to an isolated, impoverished and inconsequential cluster of islands off the coast of Europe if it unravels 40 years of close association with the European Union. British interests “will be repeatedly and permanently hammered by the EU27 for many years to come”, warns Sam Gyimah, the British-born, Oxford-educated Conservative who was minister for universities, science, research and innovation until November 30, when he became the 10th minister to resign since July when Prime Minister Theresa May presented her Chequers plan for leaving the EU.

Internationally, the loss will be of a model that inspired a fractured and warring world to seek cohesion. The Association of South-East Asian Nations, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Gulf Cooperation Council and our own South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation all seek to follow in the footsteps of a trading bloc that is the nearest approach to a global community. That model is threatened now by the fanciful self-view of a disgruntled member that fancies itself as a global power centre, an illusion that is kept alive by the Commonwealth, whose trappings are more visible in London than in any Afro-Asian capital.

 

However, it is realised now that the June 2016 referendum, when 51.89 per cent of respondents voted to quit the EU against 48.11 per cent wishing to remain, and which Nigel Farage, leading the right-wing populist UK Independence Party, hailed as his personal victory, was not based on adequate knowledge of what is at stake. It was a knee-jerk response to racist fears that hordes of Europeans were sponging on Britain’s welfare services. That stand bears reconsidering as the December 11 vote in Parliament on the 585-page draft settlement agreed to by Ms May and the EU leaders draws near. The demand for another reference to the people is growing to ensure that the heady campaign to “take back control” does not mean social, political and — above all — economic damage on March 29, 2019, the deadline by when the divorce must be finalised.

Mr Gyimah, who has revived the referendum demand, edited a report by a Conservative think tank, titled “From the Ashes: the future of the Conservative Party”. As science minister, he was frustrated with arguments between Britain and the EU over the satellite programme Galileo. He doesn’t think it’s in Britain’s interest to leave the EU. Promising to vote on December 11 against this happening, he says separation would leave the country poorer, weaker, and less secure. He wants the legal process of departure, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, extended.

Seventeen MPs also want a second referendum because, they say, the impact of the Brexit vote has already seen Britain go from being the fastest growing G-7 economy to one of the slowest. “Our constituents did not vote to put jobs at risk or to be worse off and they certainly did not expect to pay a £40 billion divorce bill without knowing what our future trading relationship with the EU would be”, they say. Reneging on the obligation would be devastating for Britain’s international credibility.

US President Donald Trump’s cavalier attitude proves that other countries won’t be rushing to strike trade deals with a standalone Britain. They will insist on conditions like India’s demand for long-term visas for post-graduate students supposedly gaining work experience. Splitting trade quotas between Britain and the EU is one contentious issue. Fishing is another, with French President Emmanuel Macron arguing that European fishermen can continue to exploit British waters after Brexit. Fishing differences explained Greenland’s exit and accounted for two Norwegian referendums rejecting EU membership. The proposed customs union excludes services which make up 80 per cent of Britain’s economy and 40 per cent of its exports to the EU. The EU’s 10 per cent import tariff would ruin Britain’s car industry. Farmers would similarly find it difficult to sell across the English Channel. In fact, all protected sectors would wither.

Sorting all this out is bound to be messy, especially since trade agreements involving “mixed competences”, where some powers are exercised by the EU and others by individual countries, will need unanimous EU endorsement. Regional interests can arouse fierce loyalties. In 2016 the local parliament of Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking province with under four million people, held up the EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, which had been on the anvil since 2009. The 17 objecting MPs say: “Far from a Brexit dividend, there will be a heavy penalty for the NHS, public health, social care, science and research. This is why the people — not only their MPs — must have a say on whether we go through with this.”

Even John McDonnell, the Labour Party’s shadow chancellor, says a second referendum must allow remaining in the EU. “The terms of Brexit — whatever they are — should be put to the British people to decide whether to proceed on those terms or to keep the current deal we have as a member of the EU.” Quitting without a settlement would leave Britain without rules to govern trading in radioactive materials, international electricity markets, financial-contract clearing, aviation, medicines regulation, immigration control and much else. Besides rupturing the corpus of EU-Britain legal arrangements, it would raise questions about the Ireland-Northern Ireland border and possibly jeopardise the Good Friday agreement that has ended the civil war.

Ms May’s defiant “no deal is better than a bad deal” slogan convinced the British — not that they needed much convincing — that they can still dictate terms. It didn’t work for the simple reason that it’s no longer “Rule Britannia”. Britain has a weak hand and won’t face up to it. It’s all laughingly reminiscent of the old joke about “Channel Frozen, Continent Isolated”.

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