13 July 2017

How Brexit Britain can de-Farage its reputation


There is a Ukippish take on the world in which one looks after one’s own and to hell with the rest – an insular, morally stunted and frankly nauseating mindset that demands we put ultra-tight limits on immigration, at all costs avoid becoming entangled in global problems, and slash or even scrap our overseas aid budget (though this is rarely accompanied by any great empathy for the most vulnerable Britons). Such a zero-sum outlook is the territory of the odd, nasty or thick, and often a combination of all three. It would do nothing to ease global tensions or spread the benefits of liberal democracy and free trade. Long-term, it would be an act of foolish self-harm.

More than this, such a stance denies our common humanity in an era of hyper-connectedness – one reason that young Britons were so overwhelmingly against Brexit. There is, I would hope, more to our brief time on earth and pursuit of the good life than erecting barriers, exploiting difference and playing on nativist prejudice. If that is what being a citizen of somewhere means, you can shove it, Theresa.

For liberal internationalists like me, one of the main objections to leaving the EU was the statement it would send about the kind of country we are. Turning our back, walking away, rejecting comity and compromise, a leering John Bull flicking two fingers at Johnny Foreigner – regardless of the intent of liberal Leavers, the semiotics of the decision are not happy. From the outside, today’s Britain looks selfish, diminished, peripheral. If it weren’t for Trump, we’d be the global bogeyman.

The post-referendum period has not helped. It has become clear how ignorant Brexit’s advocates were about the depth and complexity of its consequences, how little agreement there is among them about what the priorities should be, and how weak our negotiating position actually is. The whole concept has begun to look not just wrong, but farcical.

There is, suddenly, a lot of talk about whether we might simply choose to stay (I wrote such a piece myself). As a sceptical Remainer, I continue to believe this would be the best and safest outcome for the UK. We’ll see. But let’s accept that as of now it is overwhelmingly likely we’ll depart, even if we do so more gently than the ultras on the Tory backbenches would prefer.

If this is to be the case, Britain will be in need of friends and really, really needs to de-Farage its reputation. One way of starting this process is to address the potentially catastrophic impact Brexit could have on some unintended victims.

A new report from Oxford University’s Global Economic Governance (GEG) programme was released this week following a meeting that involved the Commonwealth Secretariat, Oxfam, the Blavatnik School of Government, trade lawyers and representatives from developing-country governments and the private sector. It warns that “a number of developing economies are highly dependent on the UK market for their exports, and disruption… would have severe repercussions, including for jobs in leading export sectors.” The world’s poor make for particularly unpalatable collateral damage.

Around 70 such countries currently have preferential access to the British market under the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) scheme. The scheme’s most liberal part, known as the Everything But Arms programme, has provided duty-free, quota-free access since 2001 and has enabled those nations taking part to develop crucial new revenue streams.

Many firms and sectors in these fragile economies depend on GSP for their survival, and for a number of them, Britain is the key EU market. In total, they ship £20 billion a year of goods to the UK, accounting for around half of our clothing, a quarter of our coffee and other goods such as cocoa, bananas and roses. We are also the main customer for the labour-intensive fish processing industry that produces canned tuna in Ghana, the Seychelles and Mauritius, for sugar production among smaller countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and for textile exports, which provide valuable jobs for two million women in Bangladesh alone.

Now, credit where it’s due: Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, has announced he intends to maintain the system of access that currently exists under the Everything But Arms arrangement. “Our departure from the EU is an opportunity to step up to our commitments to the rest of the world, not step away from them,” he said. “Free and fair trade has been the greatest liberator of the world’s poor, and [this] shows our commitment to helping developing countries grow their economies and reduce poverty through trade.”

Good. But we’re not done yet. The GEG report raises grave concerns about the impact of non-tariff barriers, such as regulatory standards, customs procedures and costs, and rules-of-origin requirements. Currently, the UK follows the EU in these areas, but after Brexit this could change, imposing extra costs on vulnerable developing-world employers.

In addition, as Dr Emily Jones, author of the report, explains, any new barriers between the UK and the rest of the EU would have knock-on effects. “Cocoa beans from West Africa are used to produce fair-trade chocolate in Germany that is then packaged and sold in the UK. New barriers between the UK and the rest of the EU would drive up the cost of production for this and many other supply chains using products from developing countries.”

While it’s vital for poorer economies that, post-Brexit, the UK Government replicates the EU’s system of preferences and establishes transitional arrangements for those currently party to EU free-trade agreements, it must also prioritise the minimising of non-tariff barriers. “This commitment could be made and publicly communicated to developing countries as soon as possible to provide legal certainty and assurance for producers, exporters and investors,” says Dr Jones.

Liberal softies like me would draw some reassurance from Britain going the extra mile to stop Brexit damaging the world’s poorest. If we must leave the EU, there is no need to turn ourselves into the Millwall of the global community as we do so. In fact, it is exactly the time to show our good side.

Chris Deerin is a political commentator