Theresa May’s Brexit pickle is all about how to deliver a Brexit while maintaining British standing in the international arena and her own leadership. It is increasingly becoming clear that May will be the last prime minister at number 10 Downing Street enjoying the country’s long-held trappings of soft power.
Dr David Monyae, the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI), penned an opinion piece entitled “A Global Britain? That is UK’s task now” published on IOL News, 27 February 2019.
Put simply, the pickle May faces will be how to fortify Britain while advancing the slogan of “Global Britain”. The weakening economic fortune of Britain and high levels of disunity demonstrated throughout the Brexit period do not provide sufficient grounds to sustain the Global Britain agenda. This is because Britain does not have sufficient financial resources to underwrite Global Britain and national unity to drive such an agenda.
From its time as an empire builder, the United Kingdom has always had global influence and, in some quarters, allure. The formation of the Commonwealth was one way that the UK used to maintain ties and influence with the territories which it once ruled as colonies.
The success of the Commonwealth and the UK’s soft power resided in the fact that even countries that were not erstwhile British colonies such as Mozambique and Rwanda successfully lobbied to be included in the Commonwealth.
Even countries that had left the Commonwealth such as the Gambia, which has since returned and Zimbabwe formally submitted intentions to return.
While the Commonwealth had a global scope to it, spanning all six habitable continents, in Europe, it was through the EU that the UK sought to posture itself outside its borders. Since joining the EU in 1973, the UK has been a major player in the organisation, bolstered by its permanent membership at the UN Security Council.
The economic synergy that was formed by the EU, coupled with the obliteration of visa requirements among EU members, made the EU a model of regional integration after World War II and the Cold War.
These factors also lend credence to the UK’s intent to be a political example to those to whom it preached democracy and human rights. It also presented itself as a power that was poised to march in tandem with the increasingly globalising world that attracted international travel.
The referendum presents the UK as a power that wants to retreat from regional and global integration, indeed as a power that is succumbing to the nationalistic sentiment that is sweeping the West after the rise of terrorism.
The UK will have a difficult time convincing its allies, even in the Commonwealth, that Brexit does not translate into withdrawing from global responsibility.
The election of Donald Trump in the US might reinforce the attitude that the West is gradually forfeiting its soft power and shirking its global responsibilities.
This is in stark contrast to erstwhile minor powers which are spreading their appeal through economic and political ties. Chief among these is China which has commendably ensconced itself in Africa. At the time when Britain is leaving the EU, China is in the incipient stage of leading the Belt and Road Initiative, a project which will cater to more than 60% of the global population. The initiative befits the trends of globalisation.
The concept of Global Britain, on the other hand, seems a last ditch effort to hang on to the influence that the UK is gradually ceding. Thus, even though the Commonwealth is likely to retain its current membership, it is unclear how much importance its members will attach to it.
Africa needs to fully understand Brexit to enable it to respond to a changing Britain. There will be more room to negotiate new Free Trade Agreements with the UK after Brexit.
*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.