Reality moves us closer to Europe

As Britain’s nationalist government implodes after transitioning from a self-believer to a true believer at the helm, geopolitical reality has crept up on the political opportunism of the previous administration—and the narrow ideology of its successor.  

Dalliances with distant and divergent America, India, and Australia have proved to be no match for the integrated single European market on our doorstep.  A market of nearly half a billion people even without the United Kingdom, the value provided by the European Economic Area nations in goods, services, capital, and people—its four central pillars—can be seen more clearly now that we have been cut adrift.  The most immediately visible deficiencies are the goods and labour shortages now plaguing the UK.

By contrast, the much-vaunted post-Brexit trade agreements lie mired in the mud.  A deal with India is reported to be on the verge of collapse after Home Secretary Suella Braverman questioned the idea that Indian immigration—a prerequisite of any agreement—would be on the same basis as that recently accorded to Australia and New Zealand.

Tory anti-immigrant sentiment risks scuppering trade and barring badly needed workers as Braverman follows in Priti Patel’s footsteps as another immigration hardliner; despite also being the daughter of non-white, non-European newcomers, and surely aware of the great contributions Indian subcontinent and Ugandan Asian immigrants have made to the UK.

But aside from the obvious distasteful inference that largely white immigrants from the so-called CANZUK area—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK—should be prioritised, the government will be aware that potential numbers are lower.  Canada’s population numbers 38 million; Australia, 25 million; and New Zealand, five million.  Taken together this equals the UK’s 68 million.  

Those three CANZUK nations also have comparable living standards to the UK, likely enticing fewer applicants.

 India’s population, at 1.38 billion, is about three times that of the EEA and British income per head is 20 times higher than India’s, making demand for visas almost certainly much higher.  That Brexit might involve increased immigration is ironic indeed.

These facts also make a mockery of anti-European opposition to Romanian and Bulgarian workers, with populations of 19 million and seven million respectively, and income per-person at around $13,000 in the former and $10,000 in the latter compared to the UK’s roughly $40,000.  

Seeking trade deals further afield also has uncomfortable political consequences for the anti-Europe Conservatives.  Domestic farming interests in rural Tory constituencies dislike the prospect of cheaper Australian agricultural imports after having become accustomed to the EU’s high standards, large market, and generous subsidies.

Meanwhile, the prime minister now concedes that a UK trade pact with the United States is beyond reach.  And critics say the accord struck with Japan will boost UK GDP by a mere 0.7%, a fraction of the UK-EU trade expected to be lost.

European integration, scale and proximity made free trade and free movement within the EEA easier and more straightforward than more remote alternatives.  Even arch-nationalist Nadine Dorries now acknowledges this by calling for more European immigration.  

Size also matters.  The sheer extent of the single market versus the UK’s means we’re rule-takers rather than rule-makers.  Ignoring this exposes exporters to two sets of regulations.

Cross-continent political cooperation based on practical need, is slowly but surely replacing nationalist dogma.  French President Emmanuel Macron attracted Prime Minister Liz Truss to the inaugural meeting of his initiative, the European Political Community.  Truss even called Macron a “friend,” as opposed to her equivocation when asked if he was “friend or foe” during the unhinged leadership election in which 81,236 Tory members made her prime minister.

This more realpolitik approach, enabled by creating a pan-European body comprising 44 nations, outside the EU and the Council of Europe, couldn’t be timelier.  It met as Putin’s aggression against Ukraine underscores the importance of strengthening Europe’s energy security, embodied by the undersea gas and electricity pipelines linking the UK with France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

On issue after issue—from red tape backing up cargo at Dover, to the Northern Irish protocol, to the migrant crisis across our shared Channel—the importance of strong, enduring relationships with our nearest neighbours has become evident even to the likes of anti-EU Steve Baker, a surprising convert.

And while the anti-Brexit opposition is surely right to tread carefully, the most recent set of Labour opinion poll leads—28 points in YouGov’s latest—show the case for still closer relations with Europe’s large, lucrative, local market and safeguarding vital shared interests keeps gaining momentum.


* Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser who is now a Liberal Democrat member. He writes about Britain, Europe and America., blogging at

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