Rival national interests no longer rule the world. The best way to be a force for good is working together

A decision to leave the EU will have consequences for the developing world that we have barely begun to consider.

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The withdrawal of the Indian conglomerate Tata from Britain’s vulnerable steel industry a couple of months ago was a reminder of what it means to live in a globalised commercial system. National economies will always be susceptible to decisions taken far away and the freedom of governments to prevent such sudden lurches of fortune is already restricted – as the aftermath of the Tata decision continues to show us. It is not a matter of the EU limiting our liberties; they are already limited by the system we are all signed up to. The important questions are: what connections and support systems work best to minimise the vulnerabilities in such a world; and what coalitions of interest and common agency can spread the load or the cost for those who are least able to protect themselves?

The debate as to whether we are better or worse off in the European Union has, so far, been notably short on discussions of this sort. Some still seem to entertain the fantasy that a national government can act as it might have done 100 or more years ago in fostering and protecting its business in a world of national competition.

Yet this is not the world that we live in: bad news for those who believe that democratically elected governments are supposed to guarantee the basic security of their citizens, but not unequivocally bad news – to the extent, at least, that it breaks down a zero-sum account of rival national interests and reminds us that the most important crises in our world take no account of national sovereignty. One way or another, we have to learn to live in a world in which fundamentalism about national sovereignty has already been eroded.

This opens up a still wider perspective, once again barely touched upon in the debate over the EU to date. The nations that suffer most consistently from the imbalance of power between international business and local democracy are those with the least global leverage; choices made by EU countries, including Britain, will have an impact on these poorer nations.

A decision to leave the EU will have consequences for the developing world that we have barely begun to consider. But if we are honest enough to acknowledge that we are already living in a world where self-sufficient national definitions of interest are obsolete, we need to think through what these consequences might be. The influx of refugees into Europe (“migrants” is a word that subliminally conveys the message that people in areas of large-scale conflict are ­exercising rational economic decisions about their movements) tells us that other people’s disasters can’t indefinitely be held at arm’s length.

So, what questions might the Brexit debate raise about international development? There is the obvious point that the UK has played a significant role as part of an EU negotiating bloc in various contexts – most recently and (fairly) helpfully in the climate-change debates that resulted in the new protocols agreed last December in Paris. As critics of the current UK level of international aid are fond of grumbling, we have proportionally one of the highest levels of aid expenditure in Europe and, in terms of volume, are the second-largest donor. We have helped substantially to hold the EU to its commitments. The UK has also led in pressing for better humanitarian aid in Syria and in the countries affected by ebola. Outside of the EU, our government would inevitably have far less influence in these areas.

In the event of Brexit, there is no clarity as to how the UK would or could continue to consolidate – and, indeed, lead – European policy on development in such ways. For those who believe that this role is to the credit of the UK, this should surely be a factor in thinking about the impact of a Leave vote.

At the practical level, a significant amount of international aid is delivered by multilateral arrangements with donor countries, which are far more efficient and effective than any bilateral processes. They allow for agreed priorities, greater transparency and a reduced risk of waste and duplication of work. At present, nearly 40 per cent of UK overseas aid works in this way, much of it managed in tandem with NGOs – bodies such as Christian Aid and Oxfam – to deliver aid that genuinely reduces dependency and helps to create long-term economic stability. For such work to continue, we need structures of co-operation that ­allow this kind of flexible and co-ordinated sourcing of help.

It might be said that none of this would be impossible in the event of a Leave vote: there are other collaborative vehicles, such as the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But it is the EU that is now the most significant partner in addressing many issues affecting vulnerable economies. And the sorts of partnerships I have just described have the accumulated experience of working together that makes for better delivery. The challenge to create new networks and structures is considerable, given that everyone seems to agree that Brexit would lead to a decade of structural uncertainties – in these as in many other areas.

So much of the EU debate has been about domestic concerns to do with our well-being and security. The reality is that those with the least financial and political stability in our world need as never before a confidence that wealthier nations will accept their responsibility – in a world where there are ultimately no merely local challenges – to nurture the economic security of the global neighbourhood. Do we honestly believe that a Leave vote will increase such confidence? 

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe