On the 15th September 2016, The Royal Commonwealth Society held a High Commissioners' Round Table on the topic of Brexit.
The background to 'On the Road to Brexit - How to Maximize the Commonwealth Advantage with both the UK and EU is that the 43 year membership of the UK in the EU is coming to an end and this will inevitably affect the relationship of Commonwealth countries with both the UK and the EU in a number of respects including trade, development aid and security and accordingly there is a need for Commonwealth countries to re-position themselves.
The roundtable was kindly hosted by H.E. The Hon. Alexander Downer AC High Commissioner of Australia at Australia House and was co-chaired by him together with H.E. Ms Karen-Mae Hill High Commissioner of Antigua and Barbuda.
Opening remarks were given by Sir Andrew Cahn, former CEO of UK Trade & Investment and before that Chef de Cabinet to Trade Commissioner Neil Kinnock at the European Commission, Mr Shanker Singham, Director of Economic Policy and Prosperity Studies at the Legatum Institute and Mr. Alan Oxley, former Australian Ambassador to the GATT.
Sir Andrew Cahn began by a personal analysis as to why the Remain campaign, of which he had been part, had failed. His own father, a Jewish refugee from Nazi persecution, had died wanting the UK to leave the EU; he in some ways personified the conflicted and complex history of the UK's relationship with the EU. More generally the UK had pulled out of the negotiations in the 1950s on establishing the EU because of Britain’s relationship with the Empire, the Commonwealth and the USA which Britain regarded as more important than Europe. The history, from former Prime Minister Ted Heath's taking Britain into the then EC, through to the 1975 referendum to the present day had been one of discontent bubbling away, fortified by the UK's remaining baggage from Empire, its dislike of coalitions and cohabitations (more typical of continental politics and of the relationship with the EU). The Remain campaign had been negative and semi-detached, and the Leave campaign had been fortified by 40 years of criticism of the EU by successive UK governments.
Sir Andrew expected a debate between now until the French and particularly German elections. He thought that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty would be triggered in the first part of next year (possibly before Easter) accompanied by a letter from the Prime Minister setting out how hard or soft a Brexit the UK will choose. He thought it quite reckless of the previous PM to have forbidden the civil service to do any preparation for a possible Brexit. He considered that the negotiations would be more complex than for the accession in the 1970s (which took about a year) and that the whole process of repealing and replacing EU law would take some 10 to 15 years (with a clear majority in the Lords in favour of a soft Brexit, and probably in the Commons as well). Transitional arrangements would be important and difficult to agree – on agriculture, for example, the UK could not easily go back to the contentious subsidies of the 1960s. Sir Andrew considered that a combination of UK politics (both sides scarred by the referendum and neither backing down) and the lack of a clear vision for the UK outside an EU, that would still be essential for the UK would lead to a deadlock and possibly an agreement to ‘stop the clock’ at some stage during the negotiation process. The end result may be a three-tier Europe with the UK in the third tier, e.g. in a Customs Union (which would mean no negotiation on trade with third countries). The UK needed a settlement that was as much about the stability of Europe as about the economy and trade. The UK would need to invest a lot of effort in her old friends including the Commonwealth.
Shanker Singham from Legatum Institute considered the Single Market to be a myth, in particular in services. Since 83% of UK exports are in services Mr. Singham argued the UK needs a sui generis agreement (as is UK Government policy), a Free Trade Area with a strong services chapter and an end to trade distortions. The UK needs to move away from the CAP and CFP which would benefit the ACP countries. Mr. Singham considered that commercial interests would prevail (e.g. from German carmakers and the Continent's Financial Services Industry) and that some co-operation with Europe would continue without the EU (e.g. on Research and Development within NATO).
Alan Oxley considered that the EU was a clutch of unfinished projects such as the Eurozone. There was no worldwide appetite to raise tariffs, but we needed to re-invigorate the WTO of which the UK should maintain dual membership (i.e. in national terms and as part of the EU).
Following on from these excellent speakers contributions there was a healthy and valuable discussion from a variety of High Commissions and from the FCO. It is clear that this conversation is set to continue and the Royal Commonwealth Society intends to play a role in that discussion.