Brexit’s Boiling Over

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With or without Donald Trump and Theresa May, Asia is the way of the future.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on November 19, 2018.

OTTAWA—Brexit boiling over should be no surprise to anyone.

The decision to leave the European Union was based on a simplistic, nostalgic notion that an exit vote would restore the greatness of Great Britain.

Brexiters enjoy many parallels with the “Make America Great Again” campaign of Donald Trump.

Candidate Trump himself travelled to his mother’s homeland of Scotland to urge citizens to vote in favour of Brexit.

He made common cause with chief exit architect and U.K. Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage, subsequently inviting Farage to join his presidential campaign.

Both Trump and Farage based their successful messages on the notion of taking their respective countries back to the future.

They harkened back to a time when good-paying jobs were plentiful and not too many foreigners were there to grab them up.

But neither country wants to abandon the benefits that global economic integration has conferred.

The United Kingdom expected to hold all the cards in the negotiation of their exit from the European Union.

Instead, the country has been forced to sign an agreement which appears to put most of the power back in the hands of Europe.

Prime Minister Theresa May is hanging by a thread. It looks highly unlikely that May will even muster the support of her own Parliament, which was highly skeptical about the benefits of her negotiated agreement. She is also facing a Conservative non-confidence motion which could cost her the prime minister’s position.

Some politicians are so dissatisfied with the Brexit agreement that they are calling for the prime minister’s head in a non-confidence motion.

Others want a new vote, claiming that the negative impact of leaving the European Union was not understood at the time of their national referendum.

Without a negotiated settlement, the United Kingdom would lose the right to sell goods freely into the European market. Movement of people, including Brits residing in Europe, and Europeans living in England, will also be blocked at the British border.

If the fragile deal fractures, which looks increasingly likely, the United Kingdom will face a European divorce next March with absolutely no backstops.

The same dream that Farage sold in the United Kingdom is the one that has Trump supporters rallying around the American president .

They believe Americans can withdraw from international agreements with absolutely no consequences.

Like the Brexiters, they believe that walls will return America to the standard of living and global glory it used to enjoy.

What neither country seems to realize is that neither the United States, nor the United Kingdom is the centre of their respective universes. Their empires have been displaced by powerful new economic and political forces.

The emergence of China as a world superpower is undeniable.

But China is not the only player changing the new world order. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hosted a summit in Singapore last week that underscored the growing political muscle in that part of the world.

Trump sent his No. 2, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there in person. His presence reflected an understanding that Canada’s future prosperity depends on diversifying our economic links.

What better place to start than in the ASEAN, with a rapidly-emerging middle class who could be great customers for Canadian goods and services.

The economic and political organization is a 10-country block comprising the third largest labour force in the world. In numbers, ASEAN is eclipsed by only China and India. Home to more than 600 million people, the association represents the seventh-largest economy in the world, with a combined GDP of $2.4-trillion in 2013. By 2050, it is expected to become the fourth largest world economy. Like the European Union, ASEAN has been working toward economic and political integration.

Unlike the United Kingdom and the United States, ASEAN sees the future in promoting multi-state partnerships, not ending them. The collective economy of these 10 member states is growing exponentially. Sixty per cent of internal growth has come through productivity gains.

The ASEAN block, combined with China and India, are eclipsing the United States and Europe as the economic powerhouses of the future. Those who expect the Asia-Pacific to revert to twentieth-century serfdom are simply wrong.

For Canada to invest time and political capital in our relationship with ASEAN partners makes sense. The result of those relationships will bring economic benefits and much-needed diversification.

ASEAN can use its political muscle to pressure the United States on international trade agreements.

With or without Trump and May, Asia is the way of the future.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.