Friday, 26 February 2016

Britain doesn’t have to choose between Europe and the Commonwealth

Many of those who want Britain to leave the EU argue that, by prioritising European relations, the UK has turned its back on our traditional allies. Instead of close relations, and some degree of integration, with the European continent, they argue we should prioritise ties with the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere more generally (especially the United States). The argument is that the UK has more in common culturally, historically and linguistically with commonwealth nations, and that in 1973 we abandoned them to join the EEC. Sometimes this is reinforced by the view that our EU membership ties us commercially to European counties experienced sluggish economic growth, rather than thriving to Commonwealth countries such as India. There is however a problem with this argument. It’s wrong. Worse than that in fact, it’s not just incorrect, it’s the opposite of the truth. The mirror image of the truth. 180oc from the truth. In short, Britain’s EU membership doesn’t undermine our relationships with Commonwealth countries and America, rather it enhances then. So Britain doesn’t have to choose between membership of the EU and close ties with the Commonwealth and America. On the contrary, if we left the EU, we would also be undermining our relationships with Commonwealth states and America.

Eurosceptics have consistently made the argument that Britain’s EU membership weakens our relations with our more natural allies in the Commonwealth. In an article published in the Daily Express on 18 July 2015, UKIP leader Nigel Farage argued that ‘We must reactivate our close relationship with the Commonwealth countries which we turned our back on when we joined the Common Market’. This point echoed that from the vocally Eurosceptic Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who in a piece published by the Daily Mail on 25 January asserted that ‘We surrendered our trade policy to Brussels on January 1, 1973, and in the process turned our back on close trading partners such as Australia and South Africa’. Hannan is well known proponent of an Anglosphere, the belief that certain values and attitudes positively define the English speaking nations of the world. He promoted this case most prominently in his book, published in 2013 ‘Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World’. In an article published on his website he asserts the virtue of ‘Anglosphere values’, stating that ‘If there’s one thing that distinguishes English-speaking civilization from all the rival models, it’s this: that the individual is lifted above the collective’.

There is however a problem for Farage and Hannan. Anglophile countries, that is Commonwealth countries and the United States, don’t share their attitude to the UK’s membership of the EU. On the contrary, they enthusiastically embrace it, and in some cases are not afraid to say so in public. Let’s start with the United States of America, which is, after all, only the most powerful and influential country in the world. Senior American politicians have been very clear that they want the UK to remain in the EU, and that the UK’s EU membership enhances the ‘special relationship’. In an interview with the BBC in July 2015 Obama linked the strength of the UK’s relationship with the US to our EU membership, asserting that ‘Having the UK in the European Union gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union’. More recently US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that America has ‘a profound interest…in a very strong United Kingdom staying in a strong EU’. If Britain’s EU membership was undermining our relationship with the US you would expect American politicians to be urging us to withdraw. But it isn’t, so they’re not. In addition in October 2015 United States Trade Representative Michael Froman stated that America is ‘not in the market for FTAs [free trade agreements] with individual countries’ and that as a result the UK could be subject to the same tariffs as China, Brazil and India in the event of Brexit.

So American leaders aren’t urging Brexit, but how about their counterparts in India, the rising Commonwealth power with a GDP growth rate countries in Europe can only pray for. Bad news again for Brexit supporters I’m afraid. In November 2015, during a visit to the UK, Indian Prime Minister Modi described the UK as ‘our entry point into the EU’. In other words Indian firms like doing business in the UK, which has strong cultural and linguistic ties to India, partly because it allows that to access the common market. This point was reinforced by a warning from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which warned that a British EU exit could reduce investment from Indian business to the UK. India is our third largest source of foreign direct investment, so I suspect we would notice.

But what of Australia and Canada, surely two of the nations with which we have the most in common culturally. Well it’s hard to argue that our relationship with either country is undermined by our EU membership. The UK is the second largest source of foreign investment to Australia, and the Australians return the favour by sending more direct investment to the UK than any other foreign country bar one. Meanwhile Canada has just concluded a free trade agreement with the EU, which could come into effect this year if it is ratified by the European Parliament, and would rather not have to consider engaging in another round of negotiations with the UK post-Brexit. In short, our economic relationship with both countries is strong despite our EU membership, and politicians from neither country are calling out for Brexit. David Cameron asserted in the House of Commons on 22 February that ‘The Prime Ministers of New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and the President of America, could not be clearer in thinking that Britain should stay in a reformed European Union’. Thus far all the evidence suggests that this is indeed the case.

So in short Britain doesn’t have to select between our EU membership and close relations with Commonwealth countries and America. We can have both. Commonwealth and American leaders aren’t speaking out for Brexit. On the contrary, when they do intervene they urge us to remain in the EU. Far from strengthening our relations with the Commonwealth and America Brexit would undermine them. And as noted in a previous Youth4In article Brexit makes the threat of the UK breaking up very real, further weakening our relations with both America and our Commonwealth allies.   

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