You may have noticed: as Britain prepares to leave the European Union, dreams of the Raj are back. Actually, it’s not just the Raj which is on the minds of Britain’s Brexiteers but the even more glorious memory of “Empire”. You know the one where the sun never sets?
I can just see it. Freed of “EU shackles”, Britain becomes a stand-alone, autonomous super power. Swishing his blonde locks, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wafts in and out of the “colonies”, signing off on aid agreements for the poor while Trade Minister Liam Fox does amazingly lucrative free trade deals.
It’s the way it should be. No more listening to instructions from Brussels, no more following EU rules and regulations. Just London and the Commonwealth. Ah, the Commonwealth. That wonderful albeit peculiar, toothless institution of 52 nations, some big and small, some white, black and brown, some democracies and dictatorships and some a bit of both.
A diverse group of 2.4 billion people who all look back with great nostalgia at a time when Britain ruled the waves, the rivers, the mountains and the lands and despite all odds brought “civilisation” to unwashed millions. Only it didn’t quite happen that way. And the dreams are often nightmares. While Brexit Britain may be basking in the mellow golden glow of “nostalgic nationalism”, for many of the Empire’s former citizens, the past was pretty awful.
Just ask Shashi Tharoor, Indian member of parliament, author of Inglorious Empire and former UN under-secretary general who said recently: “There’s no real awareness of the atrocities, of the fact that Britain financed its Industrial Revolution and its prosperity from the depredations of empire, the fact that Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world in the 18th century and reduced it, after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest.”
Oh dear. But the new post-Brexit “Global Britain” is going to be different, right? Once Article 50 is triggered and the Brexit divorce procedures start in earnest, Britain will be dealing with its former colonies aka Commonwealth partners as equals.
Yes, of course. But then why are some already branding new British plans for stronger ties — including free trade agreements — with the Commonwealth as “Empire 2.0”? Let’s turn again to the articulate Mr Tharoor. Asked how the British offer to sign a free trade agreement with India would go down in Delhi, the Indian diplomat responded: “Like a lead balloon.”
That said, Commonwealth ministers responsible for trade, industry and investment did meet in London last week to kick-start an ambitious ‘Agenda for Growth’ across the Commonwealth. The first meeting of its kind was convened by the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC) and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Over two days, ministers from over 30 Commonwealth countries consulted with business leaders and trade experts on “how to boost intra-Commonwealth trade from 17 per cent to 25 per cent over the next three years.” The meeting follows on from the Commonwealth Business Forum in Malta in November 2015.
This is good news of course. As US President Donald Trump thumbs his nose at free trade and fears of protectionism stalk the world, it is important that nations across the globe reiterate their belief in global trade liberalisation.
But let’s lay to rest another Empire 2.0 myth: that Britain will find it easier, simpler to negotiate free trade agreements with its Commonwealth friends than the EU does. It just won’t be that simple. Trade negotiations are complicated affairs. And while Britain may hope it can get quick deals with key Commonwealth members — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India — it is unlikely to be so.
Canada already has a free trade deal with the EU, but the other countries are interested, first, in clinching their ongoing free trade talks with the EU before they start talking to Britain. After all, the European market is still the largest in the world. Also, many of the obstacles that have arisen in the EU trade talks with, say, India are going to emerge also in Britain’s trade negotiations with Commonwealth countries.
And while some African countries may be tempted to opt for trade agreements with Britain rather than negotiate the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) that the EU is struggling to clinch with them, there is no guarantee these will be any easier to negotiate than trade accords with Europe.
It is understandable that Britain should seek new trade partners following its withdrawal from the EU. But British Prime Minister Theresa May is wrong to talk about the “desperate” desire by Commonwealth countries to form new trade deals with Britain. Most of these countries are eager and determined to secure good trade and investment treaties with the EU — and this is unlikely to change after Brexit.
And in any case, clinging to the past is an exercise in futility. Europe and Britain, once it exits the world’s largest and most dynamic border-free European single market, should be looking to China, Brazil and Mexico, the markets of the future, not wallowing in the past. Reviving the Commonwealth is not an alternative to Brexit.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2017