The aftermath from the referendum in the United Kingdom is drowning out most issues including the Presidential elections in the United States. There is good reason for this – the UK is the world’s largest and most important financial services location, the EU is the world’s largest trading bloc and the British pound is one of the world’s most important reserve currencies. Suddenly the stability of a system built up gradually since 1945, including the multilateral financial agencies of the IMF and the World Bank, the transatlantic alliance and the vision of European unity, is under threat.
Just this week, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – the bloodiest battle in world history and an example of the collective stupidity of mankind when left to their own devices and wisdom, reminded us of just why the wise men of Europe created the European Economic Community. We of our generation have short memories and despite periodic reminders on television, we forget that the 20th century was a humanitarian nightmare for the entire world.
I think the men and women who voted to leave the EU in the referendum, are waking up quite quickly to the implications. I thought the reaction of the European Members of Parliament was very telling – they were angry and bitter and felt betrayed.
In a way it was to be expected. The UK is an island and not a very big one. The channel acts as a moat and the “drawbridge” mentality of the British has always been a factor. She delayed entry and once in she never really was at home and in recent years has been trying to get special privileges which have been resented by her European allies.
One element that seems to be forgotten by everyone is the fact that when the UK became a member of the EU 40 years ago, she came with a long tail – the Commonwealth States. It was the South African leader, Jan Smuts who envisaged a “commonwealth” of States who were formally part of the British Empire. The ties of the United Kingdom to these far flung States was maintained, not only by language, culture, the systems of law and government but also by strong and vital economic ties.
The UK insisted that these countries, especially the smaller and weaker ones, benefit from her entry to the EU and that they receive special trade and economic links to compensate for what they were losing as a result of the enlargement of the Union. The result was the African, Caribbean and Pacific Grouping of States – the ACP Group.
The result of years of complex and tortuous negotiations was a relatively painless transition which in fact gave all parties to the agreements significant opportunities and economic benefits. In recent years, as the EU has reformed itself and sought greater cohesion and ties among members, the ACP ties have weakened, but perhaps the greatest casualty has been the Commonwealth itself.
Over the past 40 years, the Commonwealth has in fact expanded, minus rogue states like Zimbabwe, but has become less and less significant. Maintaining the cultural and sporting ties and in many cases loyalty to the queen, it has had little else to offer.
Now that might be set to change. I cannot see the relationship of the ACP States to the EU being maintained in their present form. Already in decay, I think that Brexit will accelerate the process. But in doing so it may create new opportunities.
I can see the conservatives electing a pro stay Prime Minister in the next few weeks, in that case, the most sensible thing for her to do, would be to negotiate continued participation in the common market by accepting free movement of European Union citizens and the other two essential rights that the EU has stated are not negotiable.
In this respect, the UK may remain a participant in the EU without being a member like Norway. This could hold the United Kingdom together and deny the Irish Republicans the opportunities for smuggling on a massive scale.
It would also preserve the UK as a key services hub and settle global markets. But it would not deal with the future of the ACP or the commonwealth. The commonwealth is not a minnow – it contains a third of the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP. It speaks a common language – the language of science and technology and the language of trade. It shares a commonality in terms of its legal systems and already has close political and economic ties.
The world today is quite different to what it was in the mid 20th Century. Global trade, integrated financial systems and diminished poverty levels have made it essential for individual countries to have sound working relations with others. So the China of today is not only an increasingly open society and economy but its foreign policies seek friendship and cooperation with all other States. The consequence of these changes in China has been dramatic and has shown the world what a country can do if it plays this new game to its own advantage. In the process China has helped lift the world economy onto a new plane and carried with it, the countries of the Far East.
Is it possible for the Commonwealth to move back onto the centre stage of world history as a result of Brexit? What if the Commonwealth leaders decided to create a new global alliance of States with a common history and political culture? It could in the process invite all smaller states, as has happened in Africa, to join this new grouping and adopt free trade and financial cooperation strategies to foster growth and development. In this way the Commonwealth could negotiate at international forums as a block of states with real power and influence.
Much has been said about the Bricks alliance but this is not gaining any sort of momentum and with South Africa and Brazil in trouble, may not become what they intended. The other advantage of the Commonwealth as an organisation seeking mutual advantages and development; would be its truly global reach. In the 21st Century, the leading center of growth in the world could be India and this would make India, rather than the UK, the new heart of the Commonwealth.
One of the first things a new government in Zimbabwe must do is to open discussions on reentry to the Commonwealth as a republican Member. I think that could be earlier than any one anticipates as things are developing here at a pace that has taken all by surprise.
Eddie Cross* is an Industrialist, economist and MP for Bulawayo South. New Perspectives articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge,president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society (ZES) email firstname.lastname@example.org, cell +263 772 382 852.