What will happen to Britain's economy when the insular turn of Brexit meets the reality of global trade?by Adam Posen / November 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
A leading neo-conservative, Irving Kristol once defined neocons as “liberals who have been mugged by reality.” Similarly, I fear that those today who speak of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union as a chance for Britain to become a global trader again will be mugged by economic reality. Given the recent performance of the British economy, where prices are rising and wages are stagnating, that mugging may already be under way.
Globalisation has mugged far larger countries when they mistook economic integration for shackles, and tried to make it on their own down lonely pathways of trade. Brazil and much of the rest of South America stepped back from globalisation, including by limiting trade and investment with the United States. These nations deprived themselves of stable growth. India infamously tore up its trade relations with the west for decades in pursuit of autonomy and self-sufficiency, attaining neither. China only leapt forward when it opened up, albeit partially.
The UK was perhaps especially prone to mistaking useful economic ties for chains, because it had a longstanding ambivalence about its EU membership. One codified aspect of the European project has always been the idea of an “ever closer union,” which was never an easy sell for an island nation. The best anybody was going to do was the UK being sort of in, sort of out—and so it was, for as long as it remained inside the single market, but outside the Schengen area and the single currency, with a bespoke rebate to boot. It probably ceased to be sustainable after a majority of the member states bound their fortunes more tightly together in the euro area. And it certainly ceased to be sustainable after many in Britain, and particularly England, began to take the same sort of root-of-all-evil view of Brussels that many Americans have taken of Washington.
NEW: listen to Adam Posen discuss the post-Brexit economy on the Prospect podcast, Headspace!
The sad result of the referendum is that the UK has lost its comfortably ambivalent status within the EU; even Remainers who hope Britain may yet reconsider or rejoin the EU should not presume the country will get back any of the same opt-outs and rebates as before, unless it is willing to spend years rebuilding lost trust. And leaving that state of political ambivalence has a very simple…