BUILDING BRIDGES AFTER BREXIT

A much-discussed issue was the focus of The Democracy Forum’s latest seminar, which considered the impact of Brexit on Britain’s future relations with Asia and the Commonwealth

As the UK prepares to start negotiations over its divorce from the EU, The Democracy Forum gathered together a panel of experts to debate this historic event and how it will affect Britain’s trade and other relationships with nations outside Europe, including many of its former colonies.

TDF President Lord Bruce
TDF President Lord Bruce

In a welcome address, Lord Bruce, the TDF President, encouraged Britain to look forwards, rather than backwards, to potential partnerships within Asia and the Commonwealth, playing to innate strengths such as its ethnic diversity. He also spoke briefly about TDF’s role as a forum for discussing important issues that affect Britain’s connections with Asia and beyond.

The discussion was chaired by Humphrey Hawksley, an author and former BBC Beijing bureau chief. He referred to alternatives to the EU, such as renewed links with the Commonwealth, asking what Britain could do independently of Europe within this bloc, and wondering to what extent past British treatment of these nations might affect future dealings.

The British parliamentary view on Brexit came from Lord Desai, an economist and Labour peer, who was scathing in his condemnation of government failures to foresee Brexit and its consequences, and to prepare for it. He was more reserved when asked how enthusiastic the Labour party and the House of Lords are about Britain reviving links with the Commonwealth and Asia, though he said strategies could be developed regarding new free trade agreements.

For economist, broadcaster and author Linda Yueh, the key issue was the economic impact of Brexit on Asian Commonwealth countries, particularly via future trade and investment links. While America’s ‘Asia pivot’ under President Obama had not amounted to much, said Dr Yueh, the UK could do its own Asia pivot, since many of the world’s fastest-growing economies, in terms of GDP, are in Asia and, she said, ‘I believe we will soon see the end of extreme poverty in Asia. We are on the verge of seeing [this] in East Asia – probably by 2030 – and it will also happen in South Asia.’

Dr Yueh went on to note that ‘last year the World Bank dropped the term “developing countries” because of a rapid rise in income levels. Instead, it now uses regional definitions.’ Due to the rise in incomes in populous countries such as China, more than half the world’s population will be middle class and middle income by 2030, she added, with people in this group earning the equivalent of between 10 and 100 dollars per day. However, abject poverty – whereby people make less than $1.90 per day – remains common in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and in some parts of South Asia.

Britain is especially strong in financial, accounting and legal services, which, she pointed out, are not covered by most trade deals. She saw the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) opening up further possibilities, but warned that there was no easy way to access Asian and Commonwealth markets collectively, as there is with the EU, and that negotiating trade agreements could be a very lengthy process.

Dr Yueh sought to end on a more positive note, saying the UK could open talks on free trade agreements (FTAs) with smaller, more amenable economies such as South Korea, Australia and Malaysia, from which it could learn before moving to the next level.

Richard Burge, Executive Director of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, said that, as we head for a world likely to be dominated more by bilateral than multilateral trade deals, Brexit could provide a very real opportunity for the Commonwealth and Asia. Britain needed to fight for good deals for its potential trading partners as well as for itself.

Audience members at the event
Audience members at the event

Burge was generally positive about how the Commonwealth might benefit from the Brexit process, arguing that a ‘new player on the block’, more in favour of free trade and liberal trade markets than the more protectionist EU, would be helpful. He believed, however, that the Commonwealth would get more out of Brexit than the UK would gain from the Commonwealth after it left the EU, as Britain had always put its own trading needs ahead of those of its former colonies.

More broadly, the speaker emphasised the rise of knowledge as a tradeable commodity, the importance of free movement of talent and the ease of obtaining visas. Lack of a free, neutral global internet in many countries was, he cautioned, always a profound barrier to trade.

In conclusion, Burge said we should think of the Commonwealth, especially post-Brexit, as an alignment rather than an alliance of nations. The former gave individual countries freer rein to pursue their own trading objectives at their own pace, rather than subjecting them to a treaty obligation. He had high hopes for the future, but acknowledged the obstacles to trade imposed by governments, and said the Commonwealth was not a panacea for the lack of FTAs across the world.

John Elliott, journalist, blogger and author of Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality, discussed UK-India relations and British hopes of developing new trade deals with India after Brexit. However, recent visits to India by the British Prime Minister, Chancellor and Governor of the Bank of England had not achieved much.

There was little chance of any deals being expedited, said Elliott, unless Theresa May changed her stance on the free movement of labour, Indian students were able to stay in the UK after graduation, and Indian companies could freely transfer staff in and out of the UK. India has now moved on, he added, buying more from nations such as Japan, the US and China than it does from Britain.

Elliott also suggested that it would soon no longer be sustainable for Britain to remain sole head of the Commonwealth, and that India, its largest member, should become a partner in reforming the organisation. Then it might have a role as a ‘third force’ between the two extremes of the US and China.

In closing the seminar, media adviser Rita Payne wondered aloud whether the Brexit vote might have turned out differently if the British public had been exposed to a more impartial debate, such as this one. In these days of fake news, spin and disinformation, it was important, she said, that we have organisations such as The Democracy Forum, through which we can engage in open discussion and hear the facts from experts, so that we can decide for ourselves.

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