Theresa May’s visit to China laid bare one of the founding myths of Brexit, argues JONATHAN LIS. We are retreating from the world, not reaching out into it,
If you needed a clear sign that Brexit was in trouble, we got another one recently when the prime minister, pursued to China by a cortege of sceptical journalists, reached under pressure for the slogan of last resort: Global Britain.
‘We’re seizing the opportunity to become an ever-more outward-looking Global Britain, deepening our trade relations with nations around the world,’ she declared. It was a line to reassure the crowd of Brexit’s founding myth: the EU has held us back, and the world awaits. As with all of Brexit’s delusions, it combines dishonesty, toxicity and futility. We are rejecting the Global Britain that has always existed, and craving one that can never be created.
China is in fact an emblem of Brexit’s madness. The UK’s relationship with that country, historically stained by British warmongering, subjugation and exploitation, has, over the last 30 years, evolved into a close network of economic, political and cultural exchange. Britain, the ‘old’ power, has not sought to return to the past, and has recognised that it cannot compete on level terms. It has, however, used the EU’s commercial and foreign-policy limbs both to woo China (as with the preparations for an investment agreement) and confront it (as with anti-dumping tariffs on steel).
No more. Britain now begins a future facing the People’s Republic on its own. The days of collective bargaining through the EU, and the prospect of a trade deal of equal actors, will soon end. Britain will be mauled by a far richer, more populous and more experienced partner. Why? To ‘deepen our trade relations with nations around the world’.
Not for the first time in the Brexit debate, the fantasy fast crumbles when exposed to the touch of reality.
First, May was literally visiting China to sign £9 billion of trade deals while simultaneously implying that our current EU membership hinders such trade.
Second, Germany, which is bound by the same EU rules as Britain and boasts a population just 25% greater, somehow manages to export 300% more to China – and also 250% more to South Africa and 133% more to India, despite those countries’ far closer historical and linguistic ties to the UK. Whisper it, but it may just be possible that the EU is not the source of all our trade problems, and leaving it will not magic those problems away.
Third, geography matters to trade more than romance. The UK exports more to the Netherlands than China. Even the government’s own impact assessments demonstrate that the benefits of striking UK-only tariff-based trade deals will never compensate for leaving the customs union, or for losing EU trade more generally. And while we fantasise about opportunities for British buccaneers far across the seas, our next-door neighbours in Ireland face a resulting hard border, with hard threats to jobs and peace.
Global Britain is not something we can acquire with Brexit because it is here now. Britain’s history is a global and trading one. For centuries, people have arrived on this island from around the world, while British settlers, invaders and administrators sailed off in the opposite direction. Britain has always been ‘outward-looking’, and the places it visited have frequently wished it had looked elsewhere. Brussels had nothing to do with any of this. The EU has not stopped us trading with China any more than it stopped us invading Iraq.
The irony, of course, is that Brexit is in fact destroying Global Britain. Theresa May boasts of an ‘outward-looking’ Britain while planning to erect barriers on our neighbouring markets and citizens. Specifically, the government and tabloids’ frenzied opposition to free movement of people has contributed to an atmosphere of profound hostility which is driving EU (and non-EU) citizens away. Thousands more have been deterred from ever arriving. They know what the government refuses to admit. We are not reaching out. We are retreating.
On the world stage, Britain’s erstwhile reputation as a tough, pragmatic and reliable partner has formed the first chapter of a morality tale.
The country is so consumed by Brexit’s all-devouring jaws, and so ill-served by a foreign secretary who is not so much a diplomat as a punchline, that allies openly cast doubt on our credibility and seriousness. Indeed, friendly officials stare in horror at the enthusiasm and ferocity of our voluntary self-immolation.
While Britain is sidelined at international conferences, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – whose budget has been slashed – is withdrawing dozens of staff from African and Asian embassies to boost missions in Europe. To add to the miserable absurdity, on the first day of the Brexit transition Britain will be outside the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, which has proved a vital tool for amplifying Britain’s voice and interests abroad. Global Britain will soon find itself globally isolated.
Brexit is not only the cure for the wrong disease, but a poison to exacerbate the one we already have. Global Britain is not really about trade, or even concrete political influence. It is rather a fossilised dream of who we think we are and ought to be. Specifically, it casts Britain as a victim wrongfully cheated of its empire and forced into the shackles of someone else’s. One of the greatest complaints, and myths, about the EU was that it was a Franco-German club. Dialogue with equal partners was insufficient. British exceptionalism condemned the notion that we might join an organisation we did not explicitly lead as an unpardonable indignity.
It scarcely matters that our international partners are uninterested in our old glories, and find romantic notions of resurrecting a global political and trading realm offensive or merely pitiful. This newly recreated empire is designed explicitly to live in the mind, not on a balance sheet.
As Brexit’s unforgiving pall of reality descends on the prime minister, her desperation to cling onto its myths merely intensifies. ‘Global Britain’ is a paean both to expansion and isolation, and both are equally impossible. The plaintive cry of ‘Global Britain’ in reality craves a globe for Britain. But we can never obtain the globe we want, and are throwing out the one we had. The China visit shows that Global Britain already exists – and we are giving it away.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of British Influence