‘Global Britain’ is the ultimate goal for many Brexiters. They see new, tailored trade deals around the world as Brexit’s great prize. Fast-growing economies, including India, China and Brazil, feature prominently.
Critics counter that increasing friction with the European Union – the UK’s largest and nearest partner – has high costs. No other partner comes close to matching the scale of UK trade with the EU. Even with fast growth, the critics say, new deals cannot compensate for weakening trade with the EU.
Many are, nonetheless, mesmerised by the prospect of global trade. The ‘European Research Group’ of Conservative MPs are among Global Britain’s chief proponents.
The ERG seems willing to sacrifice other priorities – such as ardent advocacy of the UK’s ‘precious Union’ and their relationship with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists – to this goal. So does Prime Minister Johnson.
Like the Brexit Party, Conservative Global Britain advocates see the UK as economically enchained by the EU. It is unresponsive to UK economic needs.
During the 2016 referendum, Vote Leave emphasised the absence of EU trade agreements with India, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, China and Brazil. After Brexit, agile UK negotiation would, they suggested, allow the UK to move quickly to agree bespoke to deals. Others argue that the EU has much more clout in trade negotiations than would the UK alone.
Brexit also offers opportunities for deregulation. In 2012 Conservative MPs Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Liz Truss published Britannia Unchained. Now, they are in Johnson’s government.
Their controversial book argued: ‘The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.’
After Brexit, new trade deals might negotiate down levels of domestic regulation exposing Britain to bracing winds of international competition.
Both ‘remainers’ and ‘anti-no deal leavers’ see things differently. They prefer to remain in or close to the EU’s single market and/or customs union. Of course, either would limit the scope of other post-Brexit trade deals.
Caught up in endless fast-moving Brexit debates, Britain has not yet faced its longer-term realities and hard choices. Many are horrified to find that the EU future relationship negotiations have not yet begun.
Whoever is PM during the next year or two will face hard choices about the UK’s relationships with the EU and rest of the world. And wield considerable influence over them.
Even when presented as in swashbuckling Brexiteer terms, the freedom to make trade deals is an improbable rallying cry for Brexit-supporting tabloid newspapers. Few acknowledge that after a ‘trade deal’ the real work of trade begins. The realities of trade itself are rarely discussed.
What commercial products are produced by the UK and non-European trade partners like India? What might be added to this trade? Some key levers – including the visa terms available to Indian university students in the UK – are already in the hands of UK policymakers.
Without delving deeper, the real new opportunities Brexit might offer won’t be uncovered. Neither will any difference a new trade deal might make.
By Daniel Wincott, Director of Governance after Brexit and Blackwell Professor of Law and Society at Cardiff University.