It is said that men tire of the good and afflict themselves with the bad. Directionless restlessness is a fundamental characteristic of all body politics and nowhere has this been more evident than in the narrowly defeated referendum on Scottish Independence where the desire for “change” with the existing system was frequently raised in support of secession despite the absence of clear explanations of what such change would entail.
A similar demonstration of this popular agitation is the wave of anti-EU rhetoric which might now constitute the most contentious political issue prior to next year’s general election.
Despite assertions to the contrary, the potential hazards of British withdrawal from the European Union are numerous and the benefits dubious. Particularly questionable is the claim that leaving the EU would allow the United Kingdom to seek greater trade opportunities with the Commonwealth of Nations which Nigel Farage asserts: “use the English language, common law, and have a shared sense of history. I would like to see the commonwealth turned into something which would be a free trade club.”
At the 2014 UKIP party conference, Mr. Farage stated that a Britain outside the European Union would be:
Optimistic. Open to the world. The opposite of insular. Out there trading with countries that have growth rates of six, seven, ten per cent a year. Not hemmed in by the European Union – but open to the Commonwealth. Not headed by my old pal Herman Achille van Rompuy but by the Queen; our real friends in the Commonwealth.
There are several fallacies regarding the possibility that leaving the EU would enable the UK to forge stronger Commonwealth ties and that the benefits would outweigh the risks. These are namely: the claim that the EU’s declining share of world economic output makes membership irrelevant to British trade, the long-term viability of the Commonwealth and finally the favorable disposition of Commonwealth states towards the UK including the possibility of forming a practicable free trade zone to rival the European Union.
Firstly, being open to world trade and maintaining cordial relations with all is indeed a logical and commendable policy. However, based on standard gravity models of international trade, correcting for modifiers such as a shared language or cultural traditions, the trade volumes between two nations are generally directly proportional to the product of their respective gross domestic products and inversely proportional to the distance between them.
Consequently, a small, close, European nation such as Belgium will probably trade more with the UK than a large, distant nation such as India unless the latter’s GDP can grow to such an extent to compensate for its remoteness.
The relative decline of UK-EU trade is attributable to the rapid growth in the developing world compared with rather slower growth in industrialized nations which is also a characteristic feature in the trade patterns of most other developed nations irrespective of whether the country in question be Japan, the United States, France or the UK. It would be entirely illogical therefore to forsake trade harmonization with near neighbors to pursue greater flexibility in trade negotiations with countries separated by vast distances, as is the case for Britain and the majority of the Commonwealth nations.
The second consideration is the long-term viability of the Commonwealth; an institution founded during Britain’s retreat from Empire. Many former British colonies, mainly the British Mandate territories and several other Arab states, never joined the Commonwealth and Ireland withdrew after declaring itself a republic in 1949. The emotional “ties of brotherhood” which the Commonwealth has attempted to foster have faltered in the face of rational commercial interests with most remaining member states instead seeking greater cooperation their own regional trading or cooperation blocks such as NAFTA, ASEAN, the African Union, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the EU.
As with all imperial vestiges, political reciprocation and common citizenship have been progressively revoked in most Commonwealth nations. Furthermore, a prerequisite of organization membership is recognition of the British Monarch as its Head despite all but 16 of the current 53 member states being republics and many remaining Commonwealth realms, such as Australia, Jamaica, New Zealand and Canada appearing likely to abolish the British Monarchy in the near future. The Commonwealth therefore may continue in some residual form but its long-term existence is doubtful and importance marginal especially compared with the aforementioned regional organizations.
The third fallacy is that Commonwealth nations share a common history and a favorable disposition towards the United Kingdom which would make them receptive to British overtures.
Recollections of British imperialism differ depending on whether one asks a Briton, Ugandan, Malaysian or Australian. India, which accounts for approximately 60% of the Commonwealth’s population, generally views the British Raj as a brief but seminal historical aberration against the backdrop of its ancient culture which predates civilization in the British Isles by thousands of years. Similarly negative attitudes to historic British colonialism are typically held in most African and Caribbean Commonwealth states. Finally, the so-called “settler nations” i.e. Australia, Canada and New Zealand have virtually rescinded all remaining ties of common citizenship with the United Kingdom and have each actively pursued reconciliation policies with their displaced native populations.
In summary, the Commonwealth will never surpass the EU in terms of its importance to British trade and its future viability and the favorable disposition of members towards the UK is doubtful. However, its continued nominal existence rouses nostalgia amongst British nationalists which when directed against Europe presents a grave threat to the country’s future economic well-being and international standing.
Britain’s historical antipathy towards Europe may be partly attributable to England, and later the UK, being marginalized on the Continent by a succession of Spanish Hapsburg and French power. Modern British failures in playing European power politics are now aligning with domestic political restlessness to seriously imperil its continued EU membership. Britain must be careful that it does not lose the friends it already has to seek the friendship of those who cannot or will not be its friends.