Brexit’s international cheer squad loses its voice

Wrestling with the past: there never was going to be an almost overnight emergence of an Anglosphere free trade zone.

Geoff Kitney explains why UK voters have good reason to be anxious about the long-term consequences of the Brexit vote.

Brexit’s international cheer squad appears to have fallen silent.

The thinning of the ranks of those from outside the UK who were loud and unequivocal in their support for the idea of Brexit and then for the vote in favour of it has been little remarked upon, but it is unmistakable.

There was a little, jolting reminder of the role that the early, high profile ranks of non-British Brexiters played in urging and celebrating Britain’s decision to leave the European Union a few days ago.

Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who reacted to the Brexit vote that his newspapers had helped secure by describing it as “wonderful” and “like a prison break”, observed darkly that there were forces attempting to subvert the will of the British people by exaggerating the negative affects of leaving the EU.

But Murdoch remained optimistic about post-Brexit Britain’s prospects, saying that it was still “early days”.

Murdoch’s comments were a surprise because you don’t hear the like of them much these days.

Trade deals are hard to do and can only be done by hard-nosed, experienced negotiators working to competing agendas seeking to gain advantage for their own businesses and economies

The hyperbole that the Brexit vote generated around the globe among non-British anti-EU conservatives and right-wing commentators has started to look more than a little tacky as the aftermath of the vote has proven the decision to be less a prison break and more a plunge into a molasses swamp.

Pretty much without exception, the most prominent of the Brexit cheer squad crowd were indulging in wishful thinking and political propaganda rather than offering considered views, based on careful consideration of the Brexit arguments.

There is no issue that demonstrates this more conclusively than the talk of Britain as a post-EU global, free trade power.

Murdoch was one of those who saw free trade as the path to a prosperous British future and said he expected that a UK-US free trade agreement (FTA) “won’t take long to negotiate”.

Trump himself promised “a very big and exciting” trade deal with the UK.

Conservative politicians in the so-called “Anglosphere” countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand echoed Trump’s enthusiasm, some even suggesting that a deal could be concluded in months rather than years, clearly oblivious to the fact that the UK was prevented by EU law from even commencing negotiations until the Brexit process was concluded.

The talking up of Britain as a global free-trade leader, with other countries – especially the English speaking ones – queuing up to do favourable free-trade agreements was the central explanation by the Brexit forces for why Britain would be better-off economically outside the EU than inside it.

Now that the UK and the EU have moved to the second stage of the Brexit negotiating process, reality has overtaken hyperbole.

Behind the May government’s recognition that Britain’s best interests are going to be served by a deal which puts a trade agreement with the EU at the top of its list of post-Brexit trade deals is an acceptance that Remainers were correct to argue that Britain would be utterly crazy not to ensure, as far as is possible, that trade with its current most important trading partner would continue to be just as important beyond the Brexit divorce.

The alternative – a “hard Brexit” outside the single market with EU trade replaced by a host of free trade deals with non-EU countries – just did not stack up as an option offering post-Brexit prosperity.

What this means is that all the glowing talk of Britain as the leader, and chief beneficiary, of an Anglosphere trade accord was simply hot air.

Apart from wishy-washy wishful thinking, there never was going to be an almost overnight emergence of an Anglosphere free trade zone, centred on the UK.

Despite the gushing words of leaders like Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about offering Britain generous trade agreements negotiated quickly, the reality was unshakable – trade deals are hard to do and can only be done by hard-nosed, experienced negotiators working to competing agendas seeking to gain advantage for their own businesses and economies.

Britain has no modern experience of this type of negotiation and would be a sitting duck for being done over by its trade interlocutors.

This meant the only responsible course for Britain was to give top priority to a trade deal with the interlocutors it knew best – the EU.

Apart from wishy-washy wishful thinking, there never was going to be an almost overnight emergence of an Anglosphere free trade zone, centred on the UK.

A key reason that this was the best – in fact, only course to take – was that the time lags that would have been involved in the hard slog of trying to reach agreements with the Anglosphere countries was because there was a real risk that Britain’s hopes of achieving the favourable deals that were talked about at the time of the Brexit vote would be at the mercy of the domestic politics of those countries.

The fact that trade negotiations would be certain to take years meant that the political cycles of the interlocutory countries were quite likely to result in governments changing in at least some of them while negotiations were proceeding.

A clear example is Australia.

An Australian election is expected before the end of next year. The current, Brexit-supporting conservative government seems almost certain to be defeated and replaced by a left-leaning Labor government.

Labor has an official policy of opposing bilateral free trade agreements. Its chief economic policy spokesman recently made a speech dismissing bilateral FTA’s as the worst sort of trade deals and announcing that a Labor government in Australia would give priority to multi-lateral trade deals – regional at worse but preferably global deals.

Labor officials say that this is not a policy directed at the UK. They say it a policy based on what Labor judges to be in Australia’s best interests, a policy based on the consistent advice of the powerful Australian Productivity Commission which has found that bilateral trade agreements are virtually worthless to both parties and damaging to international trade flows.

New Zealand has just elected a left-leading Labour government just as skeptical about bilateral trade agreements.

So, even if the UK were to go immediately for a “hard Brexit”, by the time it actually got to the point of trying to finalise FTA’s with these Anglosphere countries, political circumstances in those countries were very likely to be hostile to British interests rather than accommodating.

And thus, another Brexit shibboleth is exposed for what it is.

Skeptical UK voters have more reasons to feel ever more anxious about the long-term consequences of the Brexit vote.

 


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Headline image credit: bmszealand/Shutterstock.com

 

 

 

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