Global influence is driven more by actions than by words. Simply declaring the UK open for business, while simultaneously cutting the country off from one of the world’s major trading blocs has severely undermined Britain’s soft power.
Britain has always liked to think it has a special place in the world. The birthplace of industry, the mother of parliaments, ruler of a third of the world – a shining beacon of ingenuity and integrity for the world to follow. Indeed, when European nations came together in 1957 to form the European Economic Community, Britain stayed markedly out, preferring its global commonwealth to those pesky European neighbours. Britain’s eventual accession reminds of the sketch from “Yes, Minister” in which civil servant Sir Humphrey explains that even when the country did enter the EEC, it was only in a de facto act of sabotage to ensure a divided Europe and continued British domination. This is perhaps not entirely reflective of reality, but the nationalistic exceptionalism the sketch parodies was very much real.
Given this historical legacy, it was not exactly a surprise that “Global Britain” came back as a rallying call for the plight of Brexiteers in the referendum in 2016 and has remained forefront in the talking-shop of the various UK governments ever since. “[Let’s] re-engage with the wider world [through trade]”, said Nigel Farage before the referendum. “As Global Britain, our range is not confined to the immediate European hinterland”, said Boris Johnson after it. “Global Britain is planting its flag on the world stage”, said Liz Truss in 2021. To strike these mystical British-tinted trade deals, on British terms, the UK had to leave the Single Market, and so it did.
How is that going over six years on from the referendum? 71 trade deals have been signed since Brexit, most of which are gracious “rollovers,” where no renegotiation occurred, that is they are on the same terms as pre-Brexit. The deal with the EU – composed of the Withdrawal Agreement and its Northern Ireland Protocol s well as the Trade & Cooperation Agreement – is far from frictionless, blamed for shortages, dips in trade volume, and political instability in Northern Ireland. A deal with the US, a significant partner as it accounts for 16.6% of UK trade, has failed to materialise, and is not expected to in the short-to-medium term. Former minister George Eustice has recently branded the much-celebrated Oceania trade deal “a failure”, in which “the UK gave away far too much for too little in return.” Exports to Japan have also fallen post-adoption of the new trade deal. Overall, total UK exports have fallen up to 23% in some regions.
The sad reality for much of the jingoistic Brexit cabal is that the rest of the world does not view Britain with the same rationality-defying reverence as they do, and in a choice between 450 million European consumer market negotiating as a bloc, and 67 million British consumers, it is clear to which market third parties would be more willing to award favourable terms. Indeed, possessing the largest, wealthiest single market in the world, the European Union has been relatively successful in changing the world for the better through its economic might and influence on the global economy. While manufacturing has shifted eastwards towards China, South Korea, and Taiwan, consumer markets have remained strong in the wealthier western nations, providing leverage to the European Commission in its negotiations with the rest of the world. To export to the single market, goods must abide by single market regulations, and with such a large potential market to access, both nations and transnational corporations tend to see regulatory alignment as a price worth paying.
Thanks to the European Union, millions of citizens around the world have data protection (or at least opt-out) rights, because the GDPR legislation was adopted and made mandatory to follow if you wanted to do business in Europe. Corporations acquiesced out of their own economic self-interest in retaining single market access, and in fact due to economies of scale, saw fit in many cases to make the changes worldwide to all their customers in the interest of saved costs & hassle. Thanks to the European Union, Apple is adopting the USB-C standard charging port for all its iPhones, leaving consumers freer to move phone provider with lower transaction costs of replacing their charging cables for new proprietary ones. By contrast, Brazil, which is attempting on its own to force Apple to bundle chargers with every phone sale, is having much less success. Single market rules apply to everyone, and have the potential to affect fundamental, structural change through externalisation of regulation to the world economy regardless of nationality or corporate agenda, which in an economic climate often cited as being the wild west of ungovernable corporate trans-nationals, shows the EU’s true potential and power. Meanwhile, Britain is limping, cap-in-hand, to anyone who will trade with it, on almost any terms, no matter how damaging domestically, because no amount of posturing will compensate the lost negotiating power that a 450 million consumer market enables.
There are arguments that this peak of interconnectedness and global European influence will not last forever. The emergence of a BRIC middle class is weakening Europe’s singular appeal as a consumer market, and there may come a time when manufacturers would rather sell to them than Europe, so need not follow its rules. Moreover, Chinese influence in Africa is on the rise, with a charm offensive of investment plans and trade deals offered from Beijing to the African nations likely to be experiencing the next population and/or manufacturing boom.
At the Liberal Democrat conference ahead of the 2019 General Election, much to the bemoaning of the Eurosceptic press, Guy Verhofstadt warned of a “world order of empires”, split into spheres of influence arising from the ashes of the western consensus. It is a prediction that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and subsequent decoupling of economic and political ties between east and west, appears to corroborate. But surely this should mean that the answer is to double down on the single market while we can – Europe must take the reins and enact positive change while at its highpoint of its leverage. Slap a carbon border tax on imports to force decarbonisation of manufactured goods. Place bans on imports of clothing produced with near-slave labour. Cut off all imports of Russian gas and starve Putin’s war machine.
Britain’s best and only hope of being that shining beacon of exemplar that many Brexiteers wanted it to be is to swallow its pride, pull up a chair, and take its place at the table of the single market. This could help energise Europe’s sometime-hesitance to utilise its true potential influence, and add the voices of the UK citizens to 450 million others calling for a better future, one directive at a time.
James Hawketts is a student of Politics and Economics at the University of East Anglia. His primary interest is in electoral politics and is a Campaigns Coordinator for the Norwich Liberal Democrats.