Brexit brigade is living in a fantasy world with its dreams of go-it-alone Britain

Philip Bowring says Britain could hardly do worse than opting out of a European bloc which, for all its faults, is a natural home for a mercantile nation that prides itself on openness

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 11:33am

Having lived overseas for more than 15 years, I, like a million other UK citizens, have no vote in the referendum on leaving the European Union. However, from an international perspective, “Brexit” is a nightmare. A mercantile nation, which, for its size, has grown rich by being outward-looking, has fallen prey to Little Englanders and self-seeking politicians in cahoots with media owned by foreigners hostile to British institutions and by tycoons living in offshore tax exile.

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It is hard to imagine anything more negative than the campaign for Brexit, a mix of grand illusions about a “go it alone” Britain and the petty emotions of those who, despite holidaying in Spain or France, still believe that “wogs begin at Calais”. As for London’s about-to-be former mayor, Boris Johnson, he has all the credibility, consistency, self-promotion and appeal to the basest of political emotions of his “hair”-brained transatlantic comrade Donald Trump.

Johnson’s opportunistic anti-foreign vibe is particularly nauseating given that he is the great grandson of Ali Kemal, a liberal Turk who took refuge in Britain in 1909 and whose son changed the family name to Johnson. One wonders how many Little Englander votes Johnson would get if he reverted to Kemal.

None of this is to deny that the European Union has major faults. It expanded too fast, bringing in the likes of Bulgaria and Romania, though they lagged behind in economic and political norms. Brussels bureaucrats want to regulate too much and enforce a conformism that either irritates or is ignored. There is a democratic deficit. But the business of a leading member should be to lead the fight for improvements, not walk away in a sulk.

Brexit advocates have a childish belief that they can somehow enjoy the benefits of the freedoms and standards that the EU provides at zero cost to national independence and freedom of action. They have no idea of the negative consequences. These cannot be directly calculated but they are self-evidently huge, because the other key members may have scant interest in helping rescue Britain from its own follies.

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As for the Scots, they would seek independence as soon as possible. UK independence equals UK dissolution, perhaps including unification of Ireland.

The Brexit advocates argue that if Norway and Switzerland can enjoy most of the benefits of EU membership, why can’t the UK? First, they are small countries with specialised economies. They are linked to the EU by numerous bilateral treaties which are, in practice, just as limiting to national sovereignty. For example, Norway is a member of the Schengen group, which means it has less control over its borders than the UK does. So is Switzerland, which also has free movement and asylum agreements in line with Schengen and broader EU norms.

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If the EU really were an inward-looking, protectionist place, Brexit could be justified. But that is far from the case. Indeed, at a time when liberal trade is under threat from the likes of Trump and his ilk in Europe, Brexit would further undermine open markets. Not least, it would probably kill off forever a transatlantic free trade pact.

The business of a leading member should be to lead the fight for improvements, not walk away in a sulk

Which leads to other Brexit illusions. One is that somehow Britain could bring its so-called “special relationship” with the US into play, as though it could possibly be in Washington’s interest to favour the UK over the rest of the EU. In an appeal to anti-Yankee sentiment, Johnson derided the suggestion that President Barack Obama would speak out against Brexit. Yet Brexit would be a disaster for US interests in Europe and in Nato. A US president has every right, even duty, to speak up on a major matter of US interest.

Another illusion is that somehow the UK can develop a special relationship with India or China – beyond kowtowing to Beijing on political issues to attract renminbi currency business and mainland investment. The UK is and will remain well down the list of China’s trading partners in Europe.

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Then there is the illusion of the Commonwealth, an entity built on sentiment, not trade, and which may not survive the death of its anchor, Queen Elizabeth.

A Brexit vote might well cause political chaos in the UK, where Parliament – not a referendum – is sovereign. Would a majority of members vote to repeal the legislation for joining the EU? And who would negotiate exit deals with the EU, which would itself need legislation?

Of course, there are narrow interests who would – or think they would – benefit from Brexit. They include the sleazier slickers in the City of London who detest regulation of any sort.

Likewise, there are groups who could do worse, notably the Conservative-voting farmers who are somewhat protected from global competition by EU agriculture policy. The unemployed in the northeast of England may not love the EU, but they may reasonably fear the Brexit consequences for Japanese car manufacturers who thrive there.

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But beyond these specific interests is the larger one of the traditional openness of an island nation. This has made London the world’s most globalised city, a city which supports more of the country, particularly in the comfortable southeast, and attracts European as well as global money, and the finest minds to its top universities. Brexit is the equivalent of Trump’s Mexican wall.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator

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