Can the UK Strike a Balance Between Openness and Control?

Rather than fetishizing free trade, Britain should aim to be a model for a wider recalibration of sustainable globalization.

Expert comment Updated 4 March 2020 Published 2 March 2020 3 minute READ

Hans Kundnani

Former Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

Boris Johnson speaks at the Old Naval College in Greenwich on 3 February. Photo: Getty Images.

Boris Johnson speaks at the Old Naval College in Greenwich on 3 February. Photo: Getty Images.

This week the UK will start negotiating its future relationship with the European Union. The government is trying to convince the EU that it is serious about its red lines and is prepared to walk away from negotiations if the UK’s ‘regulatory freedom’ is not accepted – a no-deal scenario that would result in tariffs between the EU and the UK. Yet at the same time the story it is telling the world is that Britain is ‘re-emerging after decades of hibernation as a campaigner for global free trade’, as Boris Johnson put it in his speech in Greenwich a few weeks ago.

The EU is understandably confused. It’s a bit odd to claim to be campaigning for free trade at the exact moment you are creating new barriers to trade. If Britain were so committed to frictionless trade, it wouldn’t have left the EU in the first place – and having decided to leave, it would have sought to maintain a close economic relationship with the EU, like that of Norway, rather than seek a basic trade deal like Canada’s.

As well as creating confusion, the narrative also absurdly idealizes free trade. Johnson invoked Richard Cobden and the idea that free trade is ‘God’s diplomacy – the only certain way of uniting people in the bonds of peace since the more freely goods cross borders the less likely it is that troops will ever cross borders’. But the idea that free trade prevents war was shattered by the outbreak of the First World War, which brought to an end the first era of globalization.

We also know that the domestic effects of free trade are more complex and problematic than Johnson suggested. Economic liberalization increases efficiency by removing friction but also creates disruption and has huge distributional consequences – that is, it creates winners and losers. In a democracy, these consequences need to be mitigated.

In any case, the world today is not the same as the one in which Cobden lived. Tariffs are at a historically low level – and many non-tariff barriers have also been removed. In other words, most of the possible gains from trade liberalization have already been realized. Johnson talked about the dangers of a new wave of protectionism. But as the economist Dani Rodrik has argued, the big problem in the global economy is no longer a lack of openness, it is a lack of democratic legitimacy.

The UK should therefore abandon this confusing and misleading narrative and own the way it is actually creating new barriers to trade – and do a better job of explaining the legitimate reasons for doing so. Instead of simplistically talking up free trade, we should be talking about the need to balance openness and economic efficiency with democracy and a sense of control, which is ultimately what Brexit was all about. Instead of claiming to be a ‘catalyst for free trade’, as Johnson put it, the UK should be talking about how it is trying to recalibrate globalization and, in doing so, make it sustainable.

In the three decades after the end of the Cold War, globalization got out of control as barriers to the movement of capital and goods were progressively removed – what Rodrik called ‘hyper-globalization’ to distinguish it from the earlier, more moderate phase of globalization. This kind of deep integration necessitated the development of a system of rules, which have constrained the ability of states to pursue the kind of economic policy, particularly industrial policy, they want, and therefore undermined democracy.

Hyper-globalization created a sense that ‘the nation state has fundamentally lost control of its destiny, surrendering to anonymous global forces’, as the economist Barry Eichengreen put it. Throughout the West, countries are all struggling with the same dilemma – how to reconcile openness and deep integration on the one hand, and democracy, sovereignty and a sense of control on the other.

Within the EU, however, economic integration and the abolition of barriers to the movement of capital and goods went further than in the rest of the world – and the evolution of the principle of freedom of movement after the Maastricht Treaty meant that barriers to the internal movement of people were also eliminated as the EU was enlarged. What happened within the EU might be thought of as ‘hyper-regionalization’ – an extreme example, in a regional context, of a global trend.

EU member states have lost control to an even greater extent than other nation states – albeit to anonymous regional rather than global forces – and this loss of control was felt intensely within the EU. It is therefore logical that this led to an increase in Euroscepticism. Whereas the left wants to restore some barriers to the movement of capital and goods, the right wants to restore barriers to the movement of people.

However, having left the EU, the UK is uniquely well placed to find a new equilibrium. The UK has an ideological commitment to free trade that goes back to the movement to abolish the Corn Laws in the 1840s – which Johnson’s speech expressed. It is difficult to imagine the UK becoming protectionist in any meaningful sense. But at the same time, it has a well-developed sense of national and popular sovereignty, and the sense that the two go together – which is why it was so sensitive to the erosion of them through the EU. This means that Britain is unlikely to go to one extreme or the other.

In other words, the UK may be the ideal country to find a new balance between openness and integration on the one hand, and a sense of control on the other. If it can find this balance – if it can make Brexit work – the UK could be a model for a wider recalibration of sustainable globalization. That, rather than fetishizing free trade, is the real contribution the UK can make.

A version of this article was originally published in the Observer.