For some time, I have listened to the words of many Brexit friendly Tory MPs and wondered precisely where they were coming from. Despite singing the praises of free trade and open markets, what the EU has achieved in this arena is always completely discarded by this group. Likewise, getting something similar in terms of trade, only across much more of the world; bigger markets, and even better, on Britain’s own terms completely, is what is apparently possible in a post-Brexit world. Coming from a Remain perspective, I have been perplexed by their faith in this regard.
But I finally get it. If you take someone like Dan Hannan – but anyone in that particular Brexiteer grouping would do – the one key piece of information that makes sense of everything they think is this: they believe that free trade, across the whole of the world, is completely and utterly inevitable.
If you believe this, their criticisms of the EU make complete sense. If free trade is going to happen no matter what, why settle for something that is geographically specific, ties the nation state’s hands in a myriad of ways, and is mired in too much red tape? Why not leave the EU to set the nation up as a free agent for the free trade avalanche that is unstoppably headed our way?
Only thing is, I don’t see anything to back up free trade being inevitable at all, and in fact see the precise reverse as being the case. I think protectionism is much more natural than free trade, for reasons that are easily understandable within human behaviour. In an uncertain world, holding onto what you’ve got and keeping out as many foreign elements as possible is completely rational. You can only have something like free trade if everyone involved believes that everyone else involved will play fairly and stick to the rules pretty much 100% of the time. To achieve such a state is really, really difficult and should be cherished. That’s why I like the EU: for all it’s faults, the free trade zone it has created is nothing short of miraculous from any realistic historical perspective. Nation states simply do not trade freely with one another as a matter of course, whatever Dan Hannan thinks.
The most horrible irony of all of this is that what almost certainly led the Hannans and Redwoods of this world to consider free trade as inevitable was the success of the EU itself, at least its trade component. Hell, if France and Germany could have completely tariff free access to each other’s markets only a few decades after WWII, what could be possible for free trade the world over? They are blind to the fact that there could be elements of the political project in there that made the free trade portion achievable. Again, if worldwide free trade is inevitable, the political bit seems not only pointless but likely counterproductive.
One of my big fears for the future is that by the middle of this century we look back at the free trade zones as they currently exist and marvel at them having ever been possible. A protectionist, dystopian world which would equally horrify the Tory Brexiteers and myself. Perhaps one day, ironically enough, the Brexit bunch might have nostalgia for the EU having ever existed. In the meantime, I have to hope that the Tory Brexiteers are actually correct regarding the global free trade being predestined.