Prime Minister Theresa May has triggered Article 50. Britain is now leaving the EU, but not leaving Europe. The prime minister and Europe’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, have both agreed that the goal is a comprehensive free trade agreement between the UK and the EU. Both countries stand at the same point on the starting line, facing in the same direction as the gun is fired.
With some predictability, the Cassandras of the media have seized on the EU response to the Article 50 letter and suggested this means that everything the UK government may or may not have been seeking is now off the table. It is fortunate that Theresa May is not negotiating against her own press corps. In fact, the Commission response and Michel Barnier’s speech before it were both relatively constructive and there are grounds to suppose that, as the parties start the negotiations, they will actually come up with a result that benefits their businesses, farmers and consumers. These constructive interventions are to be distinguished from some of the interventions of the European Parliament, which if carried through logically would damage European business, farmers and consumers.
Business must bear in mind that both sets of negotiators are not only negotiating for business, but also for all of their citizens. The voice of the consumer must be clearly heard in this process. We must also remember that trade negotiations are not zero sum games, where if Britain wins, Europe loses and vice versa.
That a trade negotiation is non-zero sum is for most people counter-intuitive. The goal of a successful negotiation is to ensure that the barriers to competition are reduced so that consumers receive the benefits of this competition in terms of lower prices and more supply. Failure to achieve this hurts our poorest people the most. Of all governments, the government of Theresa May is unlikely to forget this.
It is easy to view this as a pugilistic exercise in the early rounds, but that would be to fundamentally misunderstand the process. Yes, we must mobilize like we have not since war time and certainly martial analogies abound, but our enemy is not Europe, or the Commission or the European Parliament. They are our friends and colleagues in a mutual endeavour. Our real enemy who wins if we both fail is the spectre of poverty, of the despair that comes from a loss of opportunity. Our real enemy is that feeling of hopelessness that however hard you work and whatever your ideas that if you are born poor, you will die poor. This enemy rides on the twin horses of protectionism, and populism and is always looking for an opportunity to strike. With the stakes this high, Britain and the EU must not fail.
Both Brussels and London should also not underestimate the amount of work that has gone into this exercise to this point. The prime minister has laid out a vision of an open and global Britain with a clarity that has enabled the EU to clearly state that its goal is also a comprehensive free trade agreement. Such a prospect was not pre-ordained or even likely on the morning after the referendum. As we start this next phase, we must not lose sight of what has so far been accomplished.
It is critical now that we come together as a country in order to deliver the best possible outcome from the negotiations before us. We are on a voyage to rediscover who we are and what we stand for. In order to have a successful outcome, in order to achieve the Brexit prize that the prime minister has outlined, we must be the kind of country that welcomes trade and investmen. We must be the country that is a force for deeper liberalization, more competition and better protection of property rights not only with Europe but around the world.
This will require leadership from Britain’s government, but it will also require leadership from the British people. We must take full advantage of this moment, this inflection point in our nation’s history to deliver a result that could kickstart the global economy for years to come.
Britain itself stands to benefit if the UK can strike a comprehensive agreement with the EU, and trade deals with other countries, as our Special Trade Commission at the Legatum Institute has suggested. In the meantime, we must ensure that the appropriate interim measures are agreed so that trade disruptions are minimised. Both the UK and EU have agreed this in principle as the starting gun is fired.
The outcome of this process will be constrained only by the limits of our ambition and imagination. But in order for us to have a successful outcome we must remain the open and liberal country that we have always been, and hold fast to our traditional role.
If we honour the tradition and spirit of the likes of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Richard Cobden and John Bright, others will join us, and we will, as we have done before, lead the world out of the darkness of protectionism, populism and blight into the world of prosperity, peace and plenty. If the horizon before us looks unclear, or if we feel a natural fear of the unknown, we can take comfort from the fact that we stand on the shoulders of giants. In the words of one of the members of my Trade Commissioners, Crawford Falconer: “sleeper, awake.”
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Shanker A. Singham is chairman of the Legatum Institute Special Trade Commission.