The irony of Brexit Britain is that all roads lead back to Europe

Darren Litter | May 2021

At the heart of Boris Johnson’s vision of Brexit is the notion that the UK can become a renewed global player. In what has been described as a persistent “imperial mindset” among a certain subsection of elites; this is characterized by the belief that the UK can strike trade deals with emerging powers that on balance strongly favour the UK. With no apparent cognizance of what the British Empire was party to in the 19th and 20th centuries, frequently mentioned targets of this ambition are India and China – the countries that many feel are the key holders to our collective global future. 

The logic behind this mindset shows a very poor understanding of the modern geopolitical arena. In a world that is multipolar and thus no longer divided along the binary of empire and subsystem, high-level trade deals are increasingly defined by a relative balance of interests or marginal advantage, not dominance and subjugation. India and China – and other probable secondary targets such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – are highly self-assured nations with equally formidable representatives. It is no longer a question of Oxbridge’s finest (3474 of whom today, incidentally, are Indian or Chinese) going into a country or region and explaining to them, under the shadow of military might, why it is that they must accept Britain’s terms. 

The UK need only look at the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement for evidence of this. Its Brexiteer population decried the EU as a disintegrating relic of the 20th century, yet the Brexit deal that it was hoped would serve as a launchpad for ‘Global Britain’ ultimately favoured the EU negotiating position. This was hardly surprising, while the deliberative nature of the EU gives some the false impression of weakness, the economic tale of the tape – not to mention an array of other factors – was a union in league with the US and China (even without the UK), versus one that sits alongside the emerging market economy of Brazil (approximately five times smaller than the US, China, and the EU).  

The purpose here is not to be disparaging to the UK – on the contrary, it is a call for realism in the face of Brexiteer fantasy – but the reality is this ‘new and improved’ trade strategy is not going to fare much better elsewhere. The only conclusion that could be made regarding the UK-Japan free trade deal announced in October 2020, for instance, was that it was not worse than the arrangement the UK was part of while a member of the EU. This was also the case in the relation to the UK-Singapore agreement – an agreement that ought to have been a springboard for the ‘Global Britain’ plan – that was signed two months later on December 10. 

This is not to say the UK will not make a select number of modest gains – undoubtedly, it will – but the overall picture will be underpinned by the loss of the leverage a state has when it is part of a union with a population of nearly half a billion people. There will be none of the imagined “economic bonanza”, as the former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard put it, when asked about the prospect of the UK’s key strategic goal of a revitalized trading relationship with Australia. Instead, the UK will fall short of the volume and/or value of trade it previously enjoyed, and will, as it inevitably must, face an extremely daunting task in negotiating with China – a country that has over twenty times its population – and which may now be the EU’s biggest trading partner. 

The real irony however, is that when the UK exhausts all avenues of non-EU trade – and even if it is somewhat of an unforeseen success story – the realization of ‘Global Britain’ will require a more maximalist relationship with the EU. Professor Anu Bradford powerfully demonstrated in her 2020 book The Brussels Effect that although it has slowed on the growth front, global markets are beholden to the EU on account of the degree to which multinational companies observe its regulatory standards. The harvesting of timber in Indonesia, for example – a country the UK has just launched a joint trade review with – is regulated by the EU. 

While we have become accustomed since 2017 to the sight of UK ministers and officials visiting Brussels to dramatically roll back the EU-UK relationship; sooner or later we will see the reverse of this. This could begin as the UK approaches the review of the Agreement that will take place in 2026, where the government of the day might have resigned itself to the enormity of making up the post-Brexit trade slump – particularly as the EU forges on with its own trade negotiations with emerging powers. Whether this rapprochement for a more comprehensive relationship happens as soon as this or not, the quest for ‘Global Britain’ will in time show that all roads lead back to Europe.