A seminar titled “Brexit and its impact on Asia & the Commonwealth” was held in Senate Room, Senate House, Malet St, London, on May 22, 2017.
As the UK prepares to start negotiations over its divorce from the EU, The Democracy Forum gathered together a panel of experts to debate this historic event and how it will affect Britain’s trade and other relationships with nations outside of Europe, including many of its former colonies.
Opening with a welcome address, TDF President Lord Bruce offered a few words about how Britain should now look forwards, not backwards to potential partnerships within Asia and the Commonwealth, playing to innate strengths such as its ethnic diversity. He also spoke briefly about TDF’s role as a forum for discussing important issues that affect Britain’s connections with Asia and beyond.
In introducing the four speakers and topic, Chair Humphrey Hawksley, former BBC Beijing Bureau Chief and author, referred to alternatives to the EU such as renewed links with the Commonwealth – known as ‘Empire 2.0’ – asking what Britain could do independently of Europe within this bloc, and wondering to what extent past British misdemeanours in these nations might emerge to affect future dealings.
The British parliamentary view on Brexit came from Lord Desai, an economist & Labour peer, who was scathing in his condemnation of government failures to foresee Brexit and its consequences, and to prepare for it. He was more reserved when asked how enthusiastic the Labour party and the House of Lords are about Britain reviving links with the Commonwealth & Asia, though he said strategies could be developed regarding new free trade agreements.
For economist, broadcaster and author Linda Yueh, the key issue was the economic impact of Brexit on Asian Commonwealth countries, particularly via future trade and investment links. While America’s ‘Asia pivot’ under President Obama had not amounted to much, said Dr Yueh, the UK could do its own Asia pivot, since many of the world’s fastest-growing economies, in terms of GDP, are in Asia and there is room to develop trade deals there in service industries and agriculture, for example, which are not covered by most trade deals. She also spoke of the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) opening up further possibilities, but warned that there is no easy way to access the Asian and Commonwealth markets, and negotiating trade agreements can be a very lengthy process.
However, Dr Yueh ended on a more positive note, saying the UK could enter into FTAs with smaller, more amenable economies such as South Korea, Australia and Malaysia, from which it could learn before moving to the next level.
Following a short Q & A that focussed on China’s Belt-and-Road initiative, trade possibilities with ASEAN countries and what could be done to counter post-Brexit job losses, Richard Burge, Executive Director of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, said that, as we head for a world likely be dominated more by bilateral than multilateral trade deals, Brexit could provide a very real opportunity for the Commonwealth and Asia and Britain needs to fight for good deals for its potential trading partners as well as for itself. He was generally positive about how the Commonwealth might benefit from the Brexit process, adding that a ‘new player on the block’, more in favour of free trade and liberal trade markets than the more protectionist EU, would be helpful; but he believed the Commonwealth would get more out of Brexit than the UK would gain from the Commonwealth after it left the EU, as Britain had always put its own trading needs ahead of those of its former colonies. Burge also spoke about the rise of knowledge as a tradable commodity, the importance of free movement of talent and the facilitation of visa provision. Lack of a free, neutral global internet in many countries is, he cautioned, always a profound barrier to trade.
In conclusion, Burge said we should think of the Commonwealth, especially post-Brexit, as an alignment rather than an alliance of nations, as the former, not a treaty obligation like the latter, gives individual countries freer rein to pursue their own trading objectives at their own pace. He had high hopes for the future but acknowledged the obstacles to trade made by governments and said the Commonwealth was not a panacea to the lack of FTAs across the world.
John Elliott, journalist, blogger and author of Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality, discussed UK-India relations and British hopes of developing new trade deals with India after Brexit. However, recent visits to India by the British Prime Minister, Chancellor and Governor of the Bank of England had not achieved much, Elliott said, adding that there is little chance of any deals being expedited unless Theresa May changes her stance on the free movement of labour, Indian students being able to stay in the UK after graduation, and difficulties surrounding staff transfers for Indian companies. Also, India has now moved on, buying more from nations such as Japan, the US and China than it does from Britain.
Elliott also looked at the Commonwealth’s global function, leadership, and its need to reform, as well as the possible role for a third, ‘centre ground’ economic force to counter the two extremes of the US and China.
A longer and very varied Q & A covered subjects such as the UK’s potentially strong or weak negotiating position after Brexit, standard sustainable development goals, the failings of old economic frameworks in light of new technologies, and whether boosts in wealth and trade should be prioritised over democracy in Commonwealth countries.
Rita Payne closed the seminar by thanking the Chair, panel and Lord Bruce, and wondering aloud whether the Brexit vote might have turned out differently if the British public had been exposed to a more impartial debate such as this one. In these days of fake news, spin and disinformation, it is, she said, important that we have organisations such as The Democracy Forum, through which we can engage in open discussion and hear the facts from experts so that we can decide for ourselves.