How a post-Brexit Britain can chart an independent future, free of the burdens of the EU
Grenville Cross says that, contrary to the arguments of remainers, the UK can create new trading arrangements around the world, from China to the US and the Commonwealth
After the queen gave the royal assent last week, the United Kingdom’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was duly enacted. Although every possible tactic was used to frustrate its progress through Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May doggedly persevered, much to her credit.
She thereby delivered on her pledge to honour the decision of the British people in 2016, when, in the biggest vote for one thing in the nation’s history, they chose to take back control of their country. The UK will, therefore, formally leave the EU at 11pm on March 29, 2019.
There are, of course, people in denial, who cannot accept this new reality. George Soros, for example, the Hungarian-born American billionaire, is bankrolling the Best for Britain campaign, which advocates a second referendum, a familiar EU tactic.
Whenever member states have delivered decisions the EU does not like, such as Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands, they are told to vote again, until they come up with the “correct result”. Quite properly, May has rejected any such skulduggery.
It is 45 years since the UK joined the then European Economic Community (EEC), and many people have little or no idea what it is like to live in an independent, self-governing nation, and are even alarmed at the prospect. The EU has intruded into every aspect of national life, and many are reliant on it, shorn of self-will.
This suits the EU fine, as it makes ever increasing demands on its member states, and moves inexorably towards the tighter integration beloved of its ideologues. Its people, however, have scant say on its direction of travel, hence the widespread disillusionment revealed in recent national elections.
The British, having been given a choice, woke up to what was happening just in time, despite the threats. Although, before the referendum, they were told by then-chancellor George Osborne, compiler of the treasury’s infamous “Project Fear” dossier, that a vote to leave would trigger an immediate recession and a spike in unemployment, they called his bluff and their courage has been vindicated.
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While it was said that investors would desert the UK in droves if there was a leave vote, last year actually saw more inward investment projects than ever before. As for the prophesied unemployment crisis, there are now record numbers in work, at 32.34 million, up almost 600,000 since the referendum.
In future, as a champion of free trade, the UK must be transnational and outward-looking, not protectionist and insular, surrounded by tariff barriers. Since 2016, therefore, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has traversed the globe, making his preparations.
Brexit is about reconnecting with the world and making trade deals with emerging economies, such as China, India and those in South America, and re-establishing links with Commonwealth countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but also in Africa.
The United States has likewise indicated its willingness to enter into an early trade arrangement. Once free of EU regulation, the UK will be able to re-engage globally.
The EU, as an empire builder, is committed to the outdated notion of “ever closer union”. It fears that other member states, inspired by Britain’s example, will wish to follow suit. Hence its desire to play hardball in the Brexit negotiations, for example over the Irish border issue.
The UK has agreed to give the EU a divorce settlement of around £40 billion (US$52.5 billion), and the EU must respond in good faith. If it does not, and tries to humiliate the UK, or keep it tied to its infrastructure, such as its protectionist customs union – as advocated by EU-funded business groups, including the Confederation of British Industry – May must be prepared to walk away.
This would certainly not be in the EU’s interests, given the current access of, for example, German carmakers to British markets. The loss of the UK’s desperately needed cash would also be keenly felt by EU coffers.
Economists for Free Trade have estimated that a “no deal” scenario could cost the EU £500 billion, given its balance of trade surplus with the UK.
The EU, therefore, despite its posturing, does not hold all the cards, and is actually in decline. Although, for example, 54 per cent of British exports went to the EU in 2006, by 2018 that had fallen to 44 per cent, as markets elsewhere have expanded.
When Britain joined the EEC in 1973, it accounted for 30 per cent of global GDP. By 2019, that will have shrunk to just 15 per cent, notwithstanding that the union now comprises over four times as many member states. The EU is, moreover, bad at negotiating free trade deals, which explains why it has no such deals with, for example, China, India or the US.
After nine tortuous years, the EU finally concluded a trade deal with Canada. By contrast, the Australia-US trade deal was wrapped up in under a year.
Although the Canada-EU deal, which allows it 90 per cent access to the EU’s single market, but without access fees or free movement, is a possible template for the UK, Brexit Secretary David Davis has emphasised that “our new trading agreement will be bespoke, and go beyond any other trade agreement the EU has signed before”. The UK’s future must, therefore, be global, with trade as frictionless as possible.
The UK is entering an exciting stage in its island history, perhaps even a renaissance. There will be some significant challenges ahead, but also, potentially, huge prizes. What Britain needs therefore in abundance is people with grit and vision, able to see the bigger picture, not defeatism or timidity.
Grenville Cross SC is the Leave Means Leave Ambassador Hong Kong