Updated: May 2, 2020
One person´s perspective on what Brexit could really mean for a kingdom at a crossroads
When I look back on my childhood in London, I not only remember hippies, extravagant fashion styles and disco music but also high taxes, public and industrial unrest manifesting itself in mass unemployment, shortages, endless queues, strikes, power cuts, the ‘winter of discontent’ when piles of rubbish were left on the streets, oil price inflation and IRA terrorist attacks. Yes, we are talking about the 70s. A decade often seen as the end of something big – a weary hangover mood after the vibrant Swinging Sixties. A time when the UK was initially still outside the European Economic Community (EEC, a forerunner of the EC and later the EU; at the time covering only economic policies) and the old order was slowly disappearing, and a new one was desperately struggling to establish itself.
Elderly people still reminiscing about the good old days when Britannia ‘ruled the waves’ and the ‘sun never set on the British Empire’. A time when young unmarried men were still called ‘masters’.
However, these were desperately difficult years for the UK, both politically and economically. I can still hear my mother (German national) saying while trying to prepare a family dinner with a camping gas cooker ‘we may have lost the war, but we never had so many power cuts, not even during the war’. Or my Italian uncle dryly apologising for not having brought some extra toilette paper rolls along after seeing what his mother had stowed in the food-filled luggage he had to drag around with him while visiting us in London, just in case we were out of food.
But, on a more serious note, once the UK became part of the EEC, things started to change noticeably. As a way to avoid economic decline and increase its international political influence, the UK joined the EEC in 1973‘ as the sick man of Europe’. As the UK entered the EEC at a late stage and the rules (e.g. supranationalism, common agricultural policy and budget) were set long before it joined, the terms of the British membership were not surprisingly rather poor. But nonetheless, the UK was soon to catch up with the rest of Europe. According to the Financial Times in the more than 40 years that have passed, GDP per capita has grown faster than Italy, Germany and France and "by 2013, for the first time since 1965, the UK has become more prosperous than the average of the three other major European economies".
There is little doubt that the UK’s membership of the EEC/EU translated into more trade between the states. ‘Britain has benefited from greater openness to world markets, which has fostered economic dynamism. Economists have demonstrated that the main cause of that change was membership of the EU, which brought with it gains from trade, foreign direct investment, competition and innovation’. However, Brexiteers want to take the UK back to the 1970s; before 1973 to be precise. Apparently, they have forgotten, or nobody told them that the 70ties were economically and politically an extremely difficult period for the UK.
No doubt, throughout its history, the EU bureaucracy has introduced numerous ludicrous regulations such as the degree of curvature of cucumbers as well as the diameter of apples and pizza or the volume capacity of condoms. Operating as a single market certainly has also its downsides. Regulations designed to protect smaller member states may put larger states at a disadvantage. More prosperous states are also obliged to share their wealth with other member states that have been mismanaging their countries for years. But all in all, and despite justified calls for reform and more transparency, the EU has helped to modernise countries and constitutes a not insignificant economic counterweight to the USA and China. Against this background, one has to ask oneself, is it really that wise to leave the comfort zone of the EU?
Due to globalisation, no country is self-sufficient anymore. Goods have to be exported and imported. Information (be it to counter terrorism or communicate achievements in the field of science and technology) needs to be shared. Meanwhile, even the English people have become used to drinking cappuccino and eating croissants, getting their fruits and vegetables from Spain as well as driving German cars. And not to forget the advantages offered by EU laws, in particular regarding the protection of human rights (e.g. EU Charter of Fundamental Rights that is binding on EU institutions and bodies) or workers’ rights. However, that may be, the Brexit debacle has made the UK into an international laughingstock. What is more, as Jürgen Maier, UK chief executive of the German manufacturing group Siemens bluntly pointed out early 2019 ‘Britain was wrecking its reputation for business stability, putting investment in the country at risk and threatening the economy’.
In light of the aforementioned, it is hard to believe that the UK currently is in the best position to negotiate free trade agreements or will be taken seriously by the great economic powers. Provided that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) passes the House of Commons as well as scrutiny in the Lords and assuming, of
course, that the EU also ‘gives the green
light’ the UK is due to leave the EU at the end of January. The UK will then ‘formally enter the transition period where both Brussels and Westminster will try to hammer out a free trade deal before the end of 2020’. During the transition period, the UK remains in the EU internal market and customs union. If no trade agreement is reached, the ‘UK faces the prospect of having to trade with no agreement in force. This would mean checks and tariffs on UK goods travelling to the EU’.
According to Financial Times research, Brexit will trigger ‘more than 750 separate time-pressured mini-negotiations worldwide’. Apparently, the UK so far has only signed 20 "continuity" deals covering 50 countries or territories. Yet, no free trade agreements have been signed with the USA, Australia, New Zealand, China or Japan. Experience shows how difficult it is to negotiate trade agreements, so the matter should not be taken lightly.
Banking on the Commonwealth as a potential trading opportunity is dangerously delusive. The UK broke off its preferential relations with other Commonwealth countries in the 1970s. Its members have moved on and begun negotiating with other nations. It would, therefore, be rather foolish to assume that the Commonwealth is waiting for the UK to rekindle past 'virtues' of an Empire.
One may think what one wants about Trump, but there is one thing he masters like no other, and that is taking advantage of the plight of others to impose his conditions. Also, China will not miss this opportunity to dictate its terms.
The sun may yet set on the Empire and that for a longer period than thought.
For further readings on Brexit see:
Jackson, N. (2020, January 31). The Brexit Gamble – podcast. The Guardian. Retrieved February 21, 2020, from here.
McEwan, I. (2020, February 1). Brexit, The Most Pointless, Masochistic Ambition In Our Country’s History, Is Done. The Guardian. Retrieved February 21, 2020, from here.
Each issue we try to share one opinion piece related to a current event. As always, we include a little bit of English vocabulary focus to help you keep on top your game.
VOCAB SLAM IN THE FIRST ISSUE: Word selections from "Brexit"