Tories’ ‘imperial vision’ for post-Brexit trade branded disruptive and deluded
The head of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of nations has ruled out a free trade deal with the UK until at least six years after Brexit and taken a sideswipe at the idea of a new British trade empire.
The ACP chief, Dr Patrick Gomes, condemned “reactionary” Whitehall talk of a second era of British colonialism – dubbed “Empire 2.0” – and poured scorn on the government’s trade strategy.
A six-year delay to any post-Brexit deal would be a bitter setback to the government, which had hoped to use the 2018 Commonwealth summit in London as a springboard for closer trade ties with Anglophone states such as South Africa, Nigeria and Jamaica.
Gomes said: “Any trade deal would take a very long time. A transition period of at least six years would be necessary and, within that, you can’t introduce uncertainty to traders and exporters in an abrupt manner.”
He said that it had taken six years for his home country, Guyana, and other Caribbean states to negotiate a trade pact with the EU and that it would be “very disruptive” to push for a deal with the UK within two years of a formal Brexit.
Informal UK-ACP trade talks have already begun, with a focus on non-tariff barriers and regulatory harmonisation, and the Department of International Trade is considering a joint working group.
But the mood has been soured by reported comments from Whitehall officials about an “Empire 2.0” trade strategy. “This is in our view reactionary, trying to recreate what we’ve gone beyond,” Gomes said.
Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow international trade spokesman, said the warning from Gomes should send a shockwave through Whitehall. “It exposes the anger and offence that is caused by the Tories’ deluded imperial vision of trade,” he said. “The government must stop acting like a neo-colonial power that picks and chooses when and how to engage with the world.”
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said: “The UK enjoys strong trading relationships with many developing countries, including in Africa. This is why the EU exit white paper confirmed in February that we are seeking to achieve continuity in these relationships.”
Theresa May’s pledge to continue earmarking 0.7% of gross national income for overseas development aid may have partly smoothed ruffled feathers. But questions persist over changes to the way aid is being defined.
Gomes said changes would be “lamentable – and are already beginning”. He said Brexit posed “very serious” dangers to the EU’s current levels of aid spending, which run until 2020.
The UK currently contributes €4.5bn (£3.8bn) to the EU’s European Development Fund – 15% of the total – and Brussels is offering no guarantees that Britain’s input will be replaced. The money has been spent on projects including infrastructure that counteracts coastal erosion in Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, which is below sea level.
Gomes called on May to continue the UK’s “moral obligation” to aid spending.
“We’d like to see that money managed in a mutually beneficial way, not a handout or a picking and choosing where you see an opportunity for your benefit,” he said.
ACP states fear that the UK may be angling for what Gomes called “quasi-protectionist” bilateral deals with selected countries, after Brexit.
These would almost certainly offer worse terms than the current economic partnership agreements, which are more generous than the World Trade Organisation’s “most favoured nation” status arrangement.
ACP and Commonwealth countries fear that the UK may push them to favoured nation standing, triggering a “double impact” of higher tariffs on their exports, and greater competition in the UK market.
A recent report by the Commonwealth’s Ramphal Institute said that Brexit posed “serious threats to ACP economic interests, which should not be underestimated or ignored”.