Post-Brexit strategy poses great challenges for the UK; to redefine its internal and external policies besides handling the worsening pandemic situation calls for pragmatism in a large dose.
Now that the UK has left the EU and has lost the shelter of the EU’s single market and customs union at a time of heightened global risk due to COVID-19, an analysis of what it has lost and what it has gained has started in earnest. In the backdrop of increased delays at borders on both sides, goods reaching late, shop shelves getting empty, the Britishers indeed have to take a long hard look at what they have achieved post-Brexit.
Political observers believe Britain has achieved very less, and that too might be floundered in the continued political one-upmanship. Initial reports speak of troubles for the fishing industry, but the issues which remain to be resolved are innumerable, varying from new travel rules to and from EU countries, visiting neighbouring countries by road, related customs and immigration rules, health policies required etc. Moreover, there are no signs that the government is even aware of these issues, such as the new status of British passports, nor it is seen engaged in resolving them in earnest, which might be an uphill task, as it will involve talks and more talks with EU officials.
Just 15 days after the new rules came into force, the fishing industry and seafood exporters have reported the first major setback. The Independent reports that the fishing industry has plunged into crisis as smaller firms face huge post-Brexit obstacles. Deliveries of Scottish seafood to the EU from smaller companies have been halted, after post-Brexit health checks, IT systems and customs documents causing a huge backlog. If the issues are not resolved soon, some fear the trade, worth more than £1bn annually to Scottish businesses, could collapse. To escape this fishermen have started unloading their trawlers in Denmark, to get a decent price and escape red tape.
For Brexiteers, part of the logic for Brexit was that a more sovereign ‘Global Britain’ could pursue its commercial interests more successfully and enhances its voice internationally. Columnist Timothy Garton Ash in his opinion piece in The Guardian says that for all the ‘sovereignty’ it has gained, post-Brexit Britain will be trapped in a future of permanent negotiations. And all for what? If ‘sovereignty’ means a state’s formal legal authority to make its own laws, adjudicated by its own courts, then the UK has gained some more sovereignty. If ‘sovereignty’ means the effective power of a state to control its own destiny and advance its national interests, then the UK has not gained anything substantial.
Chatham House Report
Meanwhile, the leading British think tank Chatham House in a report on the emerging scenario and analysing the post-Brexit opportunities for the UK offers some prudent advice to the government. The report prepared by its CEO Robin Niblett is of the view that the UK has the potential to be globally influential in this turbulent world. But only if its leaders and people set aside the idea of Britain as the plucky player that can pick and choose its own alternative future. Instead, they need to invest in the bilateral relationships and institutional partnerships that will help deliver a positive future for the country as well as for others.
However, providing some hope the report says that the UK embarks on its solo journey with some important assets. It will have the advantage of the soft power inherent in its language, universities, media and civil society, which can enhance the influence of British ideas. But assets do not automatically equate with influence.
There needs to be a vision for Britain’s international role, and the political will, resources and popular support to put this vision into action. And the current scenario makes one wonder whether any of the British political parties will be able to encash its potential fully in the future.
UK: the global broker
The report also offers long-term solutions to the current imbroglio, it opines that rather than trying to reincarnate itself as a miniature great power, the UK needs to marshal its resources to be the broker of solutions to global challenges. And it should prioritise areas where it brings the credibility as well as the resources to do so.
The report also offers the focus areas where it should concentrate its capacities, identifying the large, economically significant Asia-Pacific democracies that are already part of British and US alliance structures – such as Australia, Japan and South Korea –given the increasing pressure they face from a stronger and more assertive China.
In contrast, some of the original targets of ‘Global Britain’ – China, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – may be important to the UK’s commercial interests, but they will be rivals or, at best, awkward counterparts on many of its global goals.
As regards to India, the report opines that developing the relationship with India, a pivotal regional democracy, as part of this shift in British strategic focus will prove a complex task. India’s importance to the UK is inescapable. Further, India is always on the list of countries with which a new UK government commits to engage. But it should be obvious by now that the idea of a deeper relationship with India always promises more than it can deliver.
While giving India the attention it deserves, the UK government needs to accept that gaining direct national benefit from the relationship, whether economically or diplomatically, will be difficult. As India’s complex, fragmented domestic politics have made it one of the most resistant countries to open trade and foreign investment.
Challenges for Global Britain
Britain’s G7 presidency and co-chairmanship of COP26, the climate summit, this year will be the first tests for “Global Britain”. These can be the launchpad for focus on six key objectives – protecting liberal democracy; promoting international peace and security; tackling climate change; enabling greater global health resilience; championing global tax transparency and equitable economic growth and defending cyberspace.
Despite Brexit, shared geography and policy mean the EU and its member states will be the most closely aligned with Britain across all these objectives. The US will also continue to be a vital partner despite adjustments in the relationship and there should be a drive to forge further links with democracies in the Asia-Pacific such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, especially with the pressure they face from China seeking regional hegemony.
“If the UK is to be more secure, prosperous and influential in the future than it was as an EU member, it needs, above all, to recommit to its European relationships, as much as to its transatlantic alliance. It will also need to deepen its circle of relations with like-minded friends in the Asia-Pacific”, the report concludes.
However, in order to survive the post-Brexit trauma, both the government and the public will have to tighten their belts, as this happens alongside the COVID-pandemic’s fallout on the economy and public morale, both. In sum, the UK will have to reinvent its policies and goals to survive in the post-pandemic era to stay relevant on the global stage.
Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi.
He was also associated with BBC Urdu Service and Khaleej Times of Dubai.
He writes on Muslims, educational, international affairs, interfaith and current affairs.