Dr Sulien Morgan
Brexit seems to be at crisis point; the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal is now a very real possibility. Business leaders are worried, the agricultural sector even more so, sterling remains in a downward spiral, things do not bode well for economic growth in the UK. There is a growing consensus, although not a critical mass as yet, that a second referendum is needed on the final deal, and the clamour to scrap Brexit increases by the day. In simple terms the realpolitik of Brexit is finally starting to hit home.
Ever since June 24th 2016, once the vote had been declared, many of those who voted to remain in the EU have constantly asked Brexiteers for a plan, castigating them for dragging the UK out into a post-EU void with no direction for travel. And yet there is a plan, there always has been a plan; it may be a flawed blueprint but it is a blueprint nonetheless.
If one leaves aside the ‘angry-nativism’ arguments of Farageists, so blatantly evident during the referendum campaign, then the other Brexit or the thinking-man’s Brexit, for want of a better phrase, was filtered through to the populace by figures such as Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, amongst others. But it is Hannan more than anyone who deserves the credit for formulating a cohesive Brexiteer ideology.
Generally avoiding the narrative of anti-immigration, Hannan and his colleagues sold a vision of the UK as being a central figure in a global free-trading economy. The continuation, post-referendum, of this idea, with free trade as its fulcrum is the closest thing the government has to a post-EU plan. It is all there in Daniel Hannan’s publication ‘What Next: How to get the best from Brexit.’ It is compelling reading, brimming with optimistic possibilities for the UK after it has disentangled itself from the EU. But for all its panache, it is ultimately an idealistic vision of what could be, for it relies on compliance from the world’s nation-states to bring about the desired state of affairs for Britain. It does not take into account the realpolitik of international politics.
As previously noted this flawed blueprint revolves around the notion of free trade, a notion to which Theresa May has subscribed: a free-trading world, tariff-free, barrier- free, across all goods and services, a truly liberated global economy. In a recent article for the FT Daniel Hannan called for a return to the economic prowess of Britain in the 1800s: a template for a post-Brexit Britain.
But herein lies the problem. Appeals to history as such are much romanticised and Hannan’s prose navigates obliviously around the power structures of the time, namely the military might of the British Empire which could coerce and demand, and take what was not given. In the same manner it is blindly idealistic to believe that Britain – post-EU – will be able to trade with anyone and everyone, removing all barriers and tariffs applicable to all goods and services. To believe this is to gravely misread how the international political system works, which in turn ultimately determines how the international economy functions.
The UK has already found that the international trade-deal landscape may not be such an easily accessible domain as was anticipated. Preliminary trade discussions with India concluded with the latter demanding more visas for its citizens to enable them to work and study in the UK; not something a government which has promised to reduce immigration can easily agree to. Japan has informed the UK that it will be prioritising a trade deal with Brussels before rushing into anything with the UK. This is the realpolitik of international politics and economics; governments act and react not to hypotheses but to current conditions and situations.
How many more countries will be in no hurry to sign free-trade agreements with the UK? And what conditions and stipulations will those deals entail? Will there really be free-trade agreements as opposed to trade agreements?
It is impossible to imagine a scenario where most countries would be willing to discard practices of protectionism – deployed to protect native industries and workers. Protectionism is a barrier to free-trade. Its deployment results in a situation whereby trade is only free in relation to certain goods and services.
Unilateral protectionism could have dire consequences for Britain. What happens to UK agricultural produce such as lamb and beef if trade deals with Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Brazil are concluded? Meats from those countries will flood the UK market, possibly at cheaper prices than domestic produce. Yes, competition is good for the consumer, but where does that leave British farmers? It is hard to imagine those above-mentioned countries agreeing tariff-free access to their markets for British meat. But to agree to trade deals Britain may have to act unilaterally, accepting other countries’ protectionism but discarding its own.
And therein lies the trouble for a post-Brexit Britain. It is a dream that, for many, has been packaged and sold very ably. It has convinced that greater prosperity is an easily attainable goal. It appeals to a history unrepresentative of modern-day Britain and its standing in the world. Its interpretation of the future demonstrates a failure to account for international statecraft, aggrandising the importance and power of the UK. It is a blueprint which promises much but when tested against reality will come up short time and time again.