Now that Royal Assent has been gained, the European Union (notification of Withdrawal) Act 2016-17 is in force and the only impediment to Britain leaving the EU is for the Prime Minister to write to the EU to trigger Article 50 of the Maastricht Treaty. This is expected in the next two weeks.
The die has been cast and this British action will lead to many repercussions, not all of which are visible today. It is however true that whilst leaving the EU is a very clear demonstration of British sovereignty, it is those repercussions that will determine just how effective and valuable that sovereignty is in today’s world.
Firstly, with regard to the EU, the deal we gain through the next 24 months of negotiations will primarily be a function of what sort of relationship the EU wishes to have with Britain. It may well make economic sense for both sides to have an essentially free trade regime in goods and services, very similar to that which exists currently. However the EU also has political objectives, prime amongst which is that any deal must look and be worse than remaining within the EU and its single market, in order to deter other countries from following the UK out of the exit door. Anti-EU views are gaining ground in France, Italy and Holland, all founding members of the EEC. Some degree of economic loss will be acceptable to the EU in order to achieve these political objectives, and though this may be higher in absolute terms than the loss to Britain, that economic loss would be much smaller as a share of their total economy than for Britain.
Britain’s economic fortunes are thus dependent on the political calculations of the rest of the EU.
Secondly, with regard to the USA, a “special relationship” may or may not exist, but if it does it has always been on US terms. Pre-Trump, the UK was an invaluable bridge between an inherently individualistic US political philosophy and an inherently social European one. – Britain was able to explain and translate each side’s thinking to the other. By leaving the EU this role is hugely diminished, though may still apply to defence matters.
With Trump as President, the picture is more complex. Trump sees Brexit as part of the same changing political tide that saw him elected and Britain’s need for a series of bilateral trade agreements fits very neatly into his philosophy that the US should only negotiate bilaterally in order to maximise its own influence. He clearly enjoys visiting his properties in Scotland and he may wish to be seen rapidly concluding a trade deal with Britain in order to contrast trading relationships with other developed world economies with those of less developed economies such as Mexico and China which he believes have been detrimental to US jobs.
He is though very unpredictable, and would likely seek some painful concessions from Britain, in order to demonstrate that he had “won” the negotiation. Britain would thus be dependent on his capriciousness, both in any trade deal and more widely in global affairs.
Thirdly, China sees itself as a key world power that is happy to make agreements with other countries, but is not very interested in negotiating them. It prefers to set out its terms and wait for others to agree to them. British sovereignty would extend to deciding whether or not to agree to what the Chinese want.
These 3 giant entities (EU, US, China) account for 57% of the global economy and an even greater percentage of UK goods exports – the fate of the British export sector and thus the wider economy is very much in their hands. Britain can only “take” what they wish to “give”. In relation to the size of these economies, Britain, though the 5th / 6th largest economy in the world, has little negotiating power.
Of the other countries who have expressed an interest in early free trade deals with a Britain outside the UK, both Australia and India have indicated that a key objective in any such negotiations would be greater freedom for their citizens to come and work in the UK. This is directly counter to the British government’s policy to substantially reduce immigration. In addition all the nations seeking trade deals are a very long way from Britain and international trading relationships display very strong correlations to geographic proximity.
British sovereignty has been dramatically exercised – the die has been cast – Britain is about to set out on a new independent path for its economic development – its fortunes, however, certainly in the next few years, now depend very heavily on the actions of others. Re-asserting sovereignty may feel liberating now but be economically painful in the future.