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'Global Britain' Is a Tactic, Not Just a Slogan

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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The key difficulty facing the U.K. as it leaves the European Union is easy to articulate: how to curb the free movement of people while maintaining vital trading relationships with its peers. It’s increasingly clear that two premises underpin the government’s position on the trade issue: first, that the other EU 27 members will realize there’s no economic benefit in making life harder for U.K. companies; and second, that even if the environment for trade does deteriorate, there are more interesting destinations for British goods and services outside the EU. Neither are certainties.

QuickTake Brexit

The atmosphere at the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham can best be described as one of grim determination. Prime Minister Theresa May’s uncompromising Sunday speech set a “take no prisoners” tone that’s echoed by her ministers. In short, their attitude is that Brexit means regaining sovereignty and control of borders, and the economy will do just fine without the single market, if that’s required.

The impression left by the last government was that of the star debating team from a very posh school, mixing intelligence, wit and that quintessential British sense of noblesse oblige. The current gang is more like a collection of head prefects, almost technocratic in their approach (with the obvious but much-needed exception of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in his role as class clown). And May’s ministers, including Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (yes, that’s his full title) David Davis and Trade Minister Liam Fox, come across as far more unified on dealing with Brexit than newspaper reports have suggested.

Their argument is as follows: The U.K. already enjoys free trade with the EU; that will only change if its neighbors decide to impose tariffs and restrictions, which would damage their own economies. The Commission, in political self-preservation mode, wants to punish Britain to deter other countries from delaying ever-closer union; but British ministers are convinced their peers in other EU governments will take a more pragmatic approach to the negotiations. It’s an admirably bullish viewpoint, but it requires something of a willing suspension of disbelief, particularly given the unmistakable appetite of competing financial centers in Paris, Frankfurt, Luxembourg and elsewhere to take market share from the City of London.

Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform, is among those who worry that the U.K. is overplaying a weak hand:

On recent visits to Berlin, Brussels, Paris and other EU capitals, I have been struck by the largely united approach of the 27 to the Brexit negotiations. There is a real worry that if the British achieve some special status, with their own institutional arrangements, other countries -- inside or outside the EU -- might ask for equivalent deals. And that could undermine existing institutional structures, to which the Commission and the European Parliament are especially attached, and possibly even lead to an unravelling of the EU.

Not only are British ministers unperturbed by the potential loss of access to the single European market, they seem genuinely convinced that this is an opportunity for the country to become “Global Britain,” the conference catchphrase. They dismiss the EU’s share of the global economy as diminishing; it’s the markets of India and Brazil that exporters should be seducing.

Ministers are also quite open in admitting that May’s assertion that there won’t be “a running commentary” means business leaders will be starved of detail on the nation’s Brexit negotiating strategy and what concessions it will and won’t make during the two-year process, which May says will begin by the end of March. “Trust us,” is the message to business.

The government calculates that 89 percent of U.K. companies don’t export a single thing. It’s banking on a new database of U.K. companies — the biggest e-commerce program ever undertaken, according to ministers — to change that, and has enlisted the support of the biggest banks to persuade their business customers to enlist. But the idea that surging exports will erase the current account deficit just because a clothing manufacturer in the Middle East has a smarter system for finding a button maker in the West Midlands seems fanciful at best.

The politicians are adamant that their meetings with the international community in the wake of the referendum suggest no adverse post-Brexit impact on the attitudes of global investors or multinational companies. Britain’s best-in-class legal system, its respect for private property and its role as a bridge between Europe and North America make it as attractive as ever as an investment choice. But being the originator of the English language and having clocks that are five hours ahead of those in New York rather than six in Paris may be creating a false sense of security.

I suspect that the U.K. government is betting -- at least partially -- that anti-EU sentiment may manifest itself in next year’s elections in Germany and France, in turn damping the enthusiasm of the bloc’s two leading cheerleaders for ever-closer union. That in turn may help temper the European Commission’s appetite for taking revenge on its departing member, which would make for easier Brexit negotiations.

EU rules don’t permit a nation to engage in trade negotiations with non-members. British ministers are taking what could be a dangerously cavalier attitude to those restrictions, with talk of “scoping agreements” that may just be within the letter of the law but which could look awfully like full-blown trade talks in a European courtroom.

Some of the posturing evident in Birmingham may be political bravado; maintaining confidence in the British economy between now and the final exit is crucial. What remains to be seen is whether the business community will keep the faith, especially if Britain visibly and vocally plays hardball in the forthcoming talks. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond told the conference that Brexit supporters “didn’t vote to become poorer.” Many more months will need to pass before it’s clear whether the country’s decision to quit the EU will prompt companies to decide that their money should exit Britain. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net