29 March 2017

Article 50 Day: Bursting a Balloon

'Prince: I know my duty; you are all undutiful:/Lascivious Edward,--and thou, perjur'd George,--/And thou, misshapen Dick,--I tell ye all/I am your better, traitors as ye are:--/And thou usurp'st my father's right and mine.
King Edward: Take that, the likeness of this railer here [Stabs him]
Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III): Sprawl'st thou? take that, to end thy agony. [Stabs him]
Duke of Clarence: And there's for twitting me with perjury. [Stabs him]
-- King Henry VI, Part 3, Act V, Scene 5

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Probably for some today's Shakespeare quote will be the one on the eve of Agincourt in Henry V, but I prefer to think of #Brexit as a civil war like the Wars of the Roses. This episodic affair arose out of the ending of a cross-Channel empire in France, and concluded with the victory of Henry Tudor, helped by France, over Richard III. Shakespeare here refers to the death of Henry VI's heir, Prince Edward, Watching the murder in this scene is Henry VI's wife Margaret, daughter of a French king. Edward can stand in today for the young people of Britain, who favoured a European future. I have sympathy for them, but for old codgers like me the cultural links with the Anglosphere were being loosened too much under the reign of the mad kings of Brussels. Kith and kin lay abroad across the oceans, not the Channel, for most of us until relatively recently.

Which brings me to a continent I visit too infrequently in this blog, Australasia. Some time ago, I set aside an alarmist article by a former Australian foreign minister, intending to comment on it. I was reminded of it by the recent appearance of a blog post by Ben Wellings of Monash University on the same theme. Now is a good time to deal with this 'Anglosphere Illusion'.

Let me start with former foreign minister Gareth Evans, who writes:
The basic problem for Anglosphere advocates is that none of the candidates for membership of this new club are likely to have the slightest interest – geostrategic, economic or political – in joining it.... the truth of the matter is that the UK has brought nothing of [geostrategic] significance to the region’s defense since the fall of Singapore in 1942....Anglosphere connections mattered a lot for Australians and others in the days before the UK joined the European Common Market. The severance of those ties was painful for our dairy and other industries, but for Britain hard-headed self-interest understandably prevailed....Probably the hardest truth that Britain’s Anglosphere dreamers must confront is that there is just no mood politically, in any of the candidate countries of which I’m aware, to build some new global association of the linguistically and culturally righteous.
 These are three very valid points: (1) Britain is a geostrategic Lilliput; (2) old economic links are gone, (3) Australians have moved away intellectually (and possibly spiritually) from the Mother Country. Now for a look at an earlier blog post on The Conversation:
The British Commonwealth of Nations achieved some economic coordination, but it was not a free-trade area. Members offered each other tariff “preferences” in which they lowered duties....Without central institutions it was hard to promote uniformity and resolve disputes. Between 1932 and 1936 Britain’s empire and Commonwealth trade did rise from 33% to 37% of imports and from 41% to 47% of exports...[After the war] Dollar shortages and exchange controls in the “Sterling Area” channelled trade towards Commonwealth members. In 1953, they accounted for  49% of UK imports and exports.... By 1972...Britain’s EEC trade had overtaken its Commonwealth trade despite the French president Charles De Gaulle twice vetoing UK applications to join the community....The experience of the 1930s illustrates that there are limits to supranational economic cooperation without some pooling of sovereignty.
 Again, the key points are (1) the Commonwealth does not have an economic role, (2) the broader economic situation trumps any 'cultural' unity. We can interpret these as variants of Mr Evans second point. Finally, we come to the post that was my springboard for writing this blog post of my own:
The disappointing UK trade mission to India, where Indian officials showed scant interest in a free-trade agreement and instead wanted fewer restrictions on the movement of Indians to the UK, showed the hard road ahead....The main risk for Australia is that Brexit comes at a moment when – after many years – Australia will soon start FTA negotiations with the EUFor Australia, Brexit is the diplomatic equivalent of moving into a shared house with a divorcing couple. In signalling with alacrity that “Australia will be there” when it comes to an FTA with the UK, Australia must not seem too keen – lest we become embroiled in a messy divorce between the UK and the EU.
 So here the key point is 'Britain can expect no favours' based on past connections, a variant of Mr Evans' third point. The question is, do all these objections leave any grounds for optimism? The answer seems to me to be a qualified 'yes'. I would focus on two aspects from the quotes I have provided here. Andrew Dilley of the University of Aberdeen, in the second citation, illustrates the problems with the Commonwealth as an economic institution. I would suggest that the first step is simply for a 'coalition of the willing' to start envisioning future arrangements that could solve disputes without imperilling sovereignty in the way the EU did. After all, we have the existing example of the EU, for one thing, to show what works and what doesn't.

Furthermore, though the 'Golden Age' of UK-Commonwealth trade grew out of some specific conditions, so did the British 'pivot to Europe' during 1957-72. To some extent, it was a reversion to a natural pattern. In 1913, UK trade with Continental Western Europe amounted to 38.5 per cent of its imports and 29.6 per cent of its exports. Canada, Australasia, Southern Africa and South Asia amounted to 22.6 per cent of imports and 31.6 per cent of exports. More importantly, in 2015 UK exports to Continental Western Europe excluding Switzerland amounted to 30.6 per cent of the total; imports from the same countries amounted to 41.4 per cent. Going by this historical pattern, leaving the EU may well have little impact on British exports, and something like 3 per cent of imports might shift to Commonwealth sources, or elsewhere. (BTW, this is roughly what those opposed to EU entry in the 1960s said, roughly -- our Commonwealth partners would lose a market for their exports.) Far from being of, as Mr Evans put it, 'the slightest interest', that's a lot of money. Surely the EU's difficulty is indeed Australia's (and the rest of the Commonwealth's) opportunity.  The lesson of China stands out here. Imports from Mainland China in 1913 amounted to a minuscule 0.3 per cent and in 1959 stood at 0.5 per cent. In 2015 they stood at 10.4 per cent. Who saw that coming in 1959, let alone 1913? (My 1913 statistics come from a draft UN report you can access here.)

 The second point is the Indian desire for 'fewer restrictions on the movement of Indians'. Leaving the EU will free the British government's hands somewhat on this, and also with regard to the 'white Commonwealth' countries that include many descendants of emigrants from Britain and Ireland. For India and South Asia more broadly, as well as the Forgotten Anglosphere in the West Indies, we have the reverse -- Britain has received people, and the family ties shared by all these countries potentially could help Britain with the immigration it will continue to need. Another 'coalition of the willing' could start thinking about how people could circulate around these countries, which might help with trade. This would strengthen previously existing links between families and other institutions that do share a common heritage. Mr Evans' sense that the ties will continue to weaken is a self-fulfilling prophecy unless people work to keep them up. The same is true of any family.

 This is not to say that some kind of future arrangement will 'replace' the EU on any level. Thinking that is even more 'pie in the sky' than anything I have written above. Britain has learned some hard lessons about 'the free movement of people' in an era of austerity, as any conversation with a teacher or social worker employed in one of the affected areas might highlight. And the economic dislocation is going to be severe, a self-inflicted recession on par with 1991-2, possibly. Welcome to the Brave Old World of post-war Conservative economic policy.

Nonetheless, the idea of an 'Anglosphere Illusion' is... overblown just as much as its proponents assert that some kind of Commonwealth Free Trade Area would be. The reality is going to lie somewhere between the two positions, and probably to the advantage of the Commonwealth countries.

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