The workers at Bombardier in Belfast and in parts of England are watching with trepidation the war of words between the UK and the United States. Their jobs may be threatened as a result of the imposition of a 220 per cent tariff by the USA against the company’s aircraft, following a complaint of unfair pricing by American aerospace giant Boeing.
Alas, this may be the harbinger of things to come. For although the dispute is not directly related to Brexit or to EU trade practices (Bombardier is a Canadian company) the readiness of the US to take protectionist action at the urging of key companies is a sign that there will be no special deals for the UK – in or out of Europe. Sentiment, shared global stances on strategic issues – even holding hands in the White House – clearly count for nothing in Washington when national economic interests are at stake.
There couldn’t be a worse time for the UK to decide to go it alone on trade. The US is looking inward in a way not seen since the 1930s. Making America Great Again is inexorably tied up, in the mind of Donald Trump at least, with ensuring that work done for American companies and for American consumers takes place in America. His Twitter bully pulpit is used to drive that message home time and again, and companies are not as willing to take inspiration from National Football League players, and defy it.
There was an extraordinarily patronising Tory belief – framed, almost risibly, as “Empire 2.0” – that previous ties in the old Commonewealth could be quickly resurrected and made into meaningful trade deals. That this is mere myth was demonstrated during the Prime Minister’s visit to India last year. She left as empty-handed as she had come owing to her refusal to make concessions on migration. Ambitious, highly educated and tech-savvy young people there and across Asia want to spend time traveling the world and to work in countries like the UK. But if they are prevented from doing so, their governments will turn a deaf ear to special post-colonial pleading by a post-Brexit Britain.
Australia has been open about the need for companies to invest in Ireland as the last significant English-speaking economy in the EU single market. China, provided it continues to expand, will have the capability to absorb new arrangements from a non-EU UK. It will also be mindful that the remaining 27 are a powerful force on the world stage – more powerful by far economically than an isolated Britain which has perpetual labour shortages (an inevitability of Brexit as this week’s report from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation illustrated) and a diminished global reach.
In short there are no pots of gold at the end of the Brexit rainbow, and insistent claims to the contrary by Liam Fox are mere whistling in the global dark.
As part of the EU the UK could, and should, expect the other 27 to rally round when protectionism threatens jobs and industries. We could enjoy the stability of being a larger trading block and the growth in markets that comes from that with the right approach, as Germany has illustrated. Even staying in the in the customs union after withdrawal –the most sensible solution if the unnecessary self-damage of Brexit is to be even partially mitigated – would permit some continuing assistance in that regard.
Without those formal and sustaining ties, however, it will be left to the Prime Minister alone to rattle her sabre, as she has done this week, and threaten retaliation. Not many however, whether they are in Washington or Wellington, will believe her given not only her solitary status but also her all too palpable political impotence.
Michael Russell is the Scottish government’s Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe