First published by the Arab Weekly on 30/10/2016
June 23rd marked a turning point in Britain’s relationship with the European Union when the British people voted to leave the union, triggering a process known as Brexit.
This quickly brought about the resignation of the prime minister, David Cameron, who was replaced by Theresa May. In her first major speech, she confirmed that Britain would be leaving the European Union and that “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”.
Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Since then it has had a love-hate relationship with the European Union as in later years the union took control of more of the issues held dear by the British people. While Britain had a special deal with the European Union exempting it from the European currency, the euro, and the Schengen agreement, which allowed free movement of people within that area, there was a perception by Britons that they had lost sovereignty and control of their borders.
May recently announced that Britain would formally inform the European Union of its decision to leave by the end of March 2017, triggering Article 50 in the relevant treaty, which then sets in motion at least two years of negotiations to extract Britain from the union.
As the reality of what has happened sinks in, and Britain begins to look to the future as an independent kingdom able to negotiate its own trade deals, opportunities open for it and for others. Negotiations about membership or access to the single European market will be the most difficult as the European Union generally ties the degree of access to the freedom of movement of labour, which Britain now wishes to control.
It is widely expected that Britain’s access to the single market will change significantly. It is therefore imperative that it looks to enhancing trade with other countries and regions if its economy is to at least hold its own and to benefit from Brexit as its proponents have claimed it will.
One of the initial effects of the referendum vote was a drop in the value of the pound by almost 20%. This makes British exports, education and holidaying in Britain cheaper for consumers from the Arab world.
At a recent reception held alongside the ruling Conservative Party conference in Birmingham and hosted by Arab ambassadors, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson surprised the audience when he stated that “the growth in exports to the Arab world outstrips any other part of the planet including the EU”. The exports include Rolls-Royce cars, underpants and even sand to Saudi Arabia. Significantly, he did not mention the arms trade. Clearly, the Arab world, whose “troubles” Johnson did not wish to see characterise the British people’s impression of it could offer some respite to Britain as it forges new partnerships.
The West always talks about mutual interests driving policy. Therefore, here is an opportunity for the Arab world to welcome Britain’s desire to grow its partnership with its members but to also press for a more favourable foreign policy towards the region.
At the reception, the Palestinian ambassador reminded Johnson that in 2017 a number of anniversaries are coming up connected to the Palestinian issue, including the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which Britain will want to mark. Surely, it should be possible for the Arab world to exert some pressure on Britain to finally realise its responsibility for the plight of the Palestinian people and, in turn, exert pressure on Israel to end its expansionist project.
It seems Arab ambassadors in London have an open door, through trade, to push for a more enlightened British foreign policy. Will they rise to the challenge of making the best of Brexit or miss this unique opportunity?