The Empire won’t strike back. That’s Brexiter baloney

by Luke Lythgoe | 16.04.2018

We’re not going to getter better deals with the Commonwealth – or for that matter the US and China – by quitting the EU. We’ll do worse.

Brexiters fantasise about swashbuckling our way around the world cutting stellar trade deals. Their latest nostalgia focuses on the former British Empire. To coincide with this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, Boris Johnson said it would be a “great opportunity for us to rebuild old friendships” with “some of the fastest growing economies in the world”.

But the old British Empire ain’t coming back. And we don’t have to quit the EU to trade with the Commonwealth, whose 53 countries mostly used to be the empire, anyway. The UK enjoys deals with 28 of these because it’s in the EU – and pacts with two others, Canada and Singapore, will soon be completed. Outside the EU, we’ll be scrambling just to copy these deals. 

Among the other Commonwealth countries, the big one is India. But it’s less keen to do a deal with us than with the EU – which, in turn, thinks it will be easier come to terms with New Delhi without us.

“I don’t think India is in a rush,” the Indian high commissioner to the UK told Politico. India’s demand for freer movement of people between the two countries is a stumbling block. He also voiced concern that UK perceptions of India were based on pre-independence nostalgia.

Another great hope for Brexiters is Australia – and Canberra is also keen. There’s just one snag: it wants Britain to accept its hormone-treated beef, a practice banned by the EU. But is that in our interests?

Beyond the Commonwealth

The problems getting good, fast deals with the Commonwealth are mirrored elsewhere. The big three are America, China and Japan.

Donald Trump has promised the UK will be at the “front of the queue” for a “great” trade deal. But this will be on America’s terms. We may have to open our markets to chlorine-washed chicken and expose our NHS to America’s big pharma companies.

The EU economy is bigger than the US, so Trump can’t boss it around. But he could bully us if we are on our own.

The same goes for China. It will only want a deal on its terms. Anybody fancy subsidised Chinese steel? Perhaps that’s why even Liam Fox, the normally optimistic trade secretary, says a pact is still “some time away”. Meanwhile, the Chinese ambassador to the EU has said there can be no trade deal with Beijing until we’ve finalised our deal with Brussels.

Finally, Japan’s “first and foremost priority” is rubber-stamping its trade deal with the EU, according to a senior minister, before turning to the UK. Of course, as an EU member, the UK would have benefited from that pact.

Like so many Brexiter promises, the idea that there’s a pot of gold to be had from cutting deals across the world is set to be broken. Post-Brexit trade deals won’t be quick, and we won’t have the clout to get good ones. That’s true both for countries that are part of the Commonwealth and those that aren’t.

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    This column was updated with comments from the Chinese ambassador to the EU shortly after publication

    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    3 Responses to “The Empire won’t strike back. That’s Brexiter baloney”

    • Man abuses wife for years. She breaks free and makes a new and successful life for herself, while his life rapidly goes downhill owing to his unwillingness to plan ahead and belief that he knows best about everything. Man tries to win back wife by asking her to help him escape rapidly approaching bankruptcy. Too late. She’s had a better offer from that nice Mr EU.
      Nostalgia for the Empire is all very well if you weren’t on the receiving end. If you were, it meant losing your autonomy, possibly your home, livelihood, or ancestral lands, perhaps your life,

    • “The EU economy is bigger than the US, so Trump can’t boss it around. But he could bully us if we are on our own.”

      The EU 27 economy is not bigger than the US economy, despite having 50% more people (450 million compared to 300 million).

      The US also runs a massive trade deficit with the EU 27, and the EU 27 relies on the US for defense.

      As for Trump not bossing the EU around, you might want to listen to the EU Commission – Macron stated no EU trade deals for countries not party to the Paris agreement.

      The EU Commission hopes to offer Trump a trade deal in order to avoid tariffs on steel, ignoring Macron.