23 October 2016
A campaigner waves a balloon featuring the Union Jack near the Houses of Parliament in London. The Brexit battle took to River Thames as boats of both campaigns jostled for space. Photo: Bloomberg
A campaigner waves a balloon featuring the Union Jack near the Houses of Parliament in London. The Brexit battle took to River Thames as boats of both campaigns jostled for space. Photo: Bloomberg

Counting the cost of Brexit: just look at Tsai’s Taiwan

“Leavers” may have gained the upper hand with more people quitting the “remainians” as seen in the most recent polls before the June 23 referendum.

Britain is seeing an unprecedented wave of dissension. Even six members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet are now openly campaigning for “Brexit” after Cameron was forced to allow members of his government to express their true sentiments about the issue.

The welfarism-leaning Labor Party has historical bonds with continental Europe but that has failed to hold back many blue-collar workers from becoming leavers as they dread the influx of immigrants.

The nation’s leading newspapers have taken sides as well.

The Sun, which has the largest circulation and a distinctive middle to grassroots readership, is vocal about withdrawal – last week it came up with the headline “BeLEAVE in Britain!” – and so is its media tycoon owner Rupert Murdoch.

Another newspaper under the Murdoch umbrella, the revered The Times, which is mostly read by the conservative blue blood, calls for exactly the opposite: stay.

And this time, The Guardian, which for a long time has been singing the tune of the Labor Party’s left wing, sees eye to eye with The Times.

The Sun’s major rival, The Daily Mail, popular among the new middle class and intellectuals, is a staunch supporter of retaining the country’s EU membership.

How about the conservative broadsheet The Daily Telegraph?

As always, it doesn’t veer away from the official line, yet a poll has found that up to 70 percent of its subscribers favor Brexit and, ironically, Boris Johnson, the just retired London mayor and one of the supremos of the “out” camp, happens to be the newspaper’s most read columnist.

Most Londoners are so far “remainians” and Johnson’s successor Sadiq Khan, son of Pakistani Muslims, is a diehard opponent of Brexit.

How do main separatist groups in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales see Brexit?

Interestingly, those who seek to break from Britain all want to join the EU after gaining independence, so they all oppose quitting the membership.

Indeed, separatist parties have threatened to table once again independence referendum bills in local parliaments once Brexit becomes a reality.

All these dissensions are seen across the entire political spectrum and all social strata. They are a result of the influx of mostly Muslim migrants, and Britain’s historic and still lively disaffection toward Europe.

Leavers say the opposite camp is fear-mongering about the supposed dire economic and financial consequences of Brexit, while remainians accuse their adversaries of projecting lies.

The Schengen Convention, sealed in 1990, wiped off the borders within the 26 member nations of the European Economic Community, EU’s predecessor, and common Schengen visas have since been created for foreign visitors.

The problem of refugees and immigrants continues to worry Brits, particularly so because Turkey is set to join the EU soon, though Britain retains its own immigration system.

The crux of the tussle is that EU nationals can live and work in Britain (and vice versa) under the current regime and thus it is often used by many who have become EU nationals, regardless of whether they entered the EU legally or not in the first place.

Most of these immigrants are not terrorists but Brits are worried that when they come to Britain they will compete for jobs and social welfare against locals.

(Hongkongers may have a similar, bitter experience.)

That’s why we are seeing nativism in Britain as well.

The “leave” side says that by being not in the EU, Brits can have control of the nation’s border checks and can fend off refugees and illegal immigrants.

But that is a big uncertainty itself as London will have to spend years to negotiate follow-up arrangements even after Brexit, not only in immigration but also in trade and investment.

British taxpayers won’t have to contribute £13 billion (US$19 billion) per year to help less developed EU member countries and the money can be a big relief to the UK’s own ailing education and welfare sectors. The British economy can also be freed from the EU red tape.

But Brexit also means no access to a single, barrier-free market and London will need years to restart trade accord talks with no guarantee of any similar favorable conditions enjoyed by British exporters today.

Waning export and foreign investment can be an imminent impact of Brexit on the economy.

In a Brexit scenario, London may look much like what Taiwan’s new government is facing now: the island’s trade and economic accords with mainland China, although signed or already in force, have been flouted and talks halted after Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in as the island’s new president.

The Tsai administration is now looking to cement economic ties with other markets in the region, hoping that its “New Southbound Policy” will help elevate the scope and diversity of Taiwan’s external economy.

Britain has, when it comes to diversification, its own edge: the Commonwealth network, of which the eight members in Asia – Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore and Sri Lanka – in particular offer great potentials to compensate for the lost access to the EU market in the event of a Brexit.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 16.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Fishermen and campaigners for the "Leave" campaign demonstrate in boats outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Photo: Bloomberg

A copy of Dutch tabloid Algemeen Dagblad Dutch with the headline "Don’t Leave Me This Way" and a British Union flag on the front page is seen at a newsstand. Photo: Bloomberg

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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