26 July 2018
Originally published by Conservative Home.
In June 2017, a coalition of Arab states imposed an air, sea and land siege on Qatar, accusing the little kingdom, without evidence, of sponsoring terrorism. The blockading states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – initially had the White House on their side, and were confident that they would either topple Qatar’s emir or bring him to heel. Among their demands were that Qatar cease pursuing a sovereign foreign policy and that it close down Al-Jazeera, more or less the only independent television station in the region.
I happened to be in Doha, the Qatari capital, three weeks after the blockade had been imposed, and I couldn’t see any signs of disruption. I began to ask around. What had been the practical consequences of the economic shock on people’s everyday lives? Qatar, after all, is a tiny country with just 313,000 citizens (though its population is swollen by foreign workers). It exports pretty much everything it produces and imports pretty much everything it consumes. There must have been some downsides, surely? Eventually, a British Muslim expatriate was able to think of one. “You couldn’t get coriander anywhere in the first week after the blockade. But that’s all fixed now.”
Fourteen months on, the blockade remains in place. Flights in and out of Doha have to avoid Saudi airspace – though, unless you’re coming from Africa, you wouldn’t notice. Qatar has had to make a few adjustments, for example importing dairy herds for fresh milk. In general, though, it has found that a globalised trading nation can almost always find new suppliers and new markets. A jolt of this kind can have positive effects, making businesses think about additional opportunities and allowing new entrants to challenge comfortable behemoths. International opinion has swung back because the Saudis and their allies have conspicuously failed to produce any evidence of Qatari sponsorship of terrorism. As the journal Foreign Policy put it last month, “Qatar won the Saudi blockade”.
I’m sure you’ve spotted where this argument is going. If tiny Qatar can shrug off, not just a disruption in its old trading patterns, but an actual full-on blockade, why are so many British politicians and officials cowering before the prospect of trading with the EU under WTO terms?
Obviously it’s not an exact parallel. International comparisons never are. The Gulf Co-operation Council does not have anything like the superstate ambitions of the EU, despite its members having affinities of language, culture and history far beyond those found in Europe. Still, here is an example of a state which wanted friendly relations with its neighbours rather than subordination, was rebuffed, and has since flourished as a global economy.
Some of the chief differences between the UK and Qatari situations are these: WTO rules are not sanctions; Britain has months to prepare; we are the fifth largest economy in the world, with a commensurately vast home market; WTO terms will allow for some immediate economic and trade liberalisation; we are not under military siege; and there are 200 Britons for every Qatari.
How incredible, then, to hear talk of food shortages, as though we were facing U-boat wolf-packs. How preposterous to read headlines about grounded flights and empty shelves. Preposterous and irresponsible. What effect do you imagine such headlines are having on the EU’s negotiators?
For the avoidance of doubt, I want there to be a mutually beneficial deal between the UK and the EU 27. I am not one of that tiny number of Eurosceptics who see a complete rupture as desirable. We have an interest in the stability and prosperity of our neighbours, and it would be tragic if Britain’s decision to exercise the withdrawal right explicitly set out in the EU’s treaties were to mean the end of our alliance with our European friends. Yet there is no point in denying that there are some in Brussels who see it that way, who regard the act of leaving the EU as hostile, who would rather see all sides suffer than a post-EU Britain flourish, and who are therefore not interested in any outcome to the talks except one that leaves Britain subservient and humiliated.
Our negotiating tactics until now have encouraged those Brussels hardliners. Again and again, they have seen us propose arrangements that would work for both sides, only to retreat in the face of a Barnier “non”. The hysterical tone in which British Remainers are now discussing the prospect of no-deal will naturally make them dig in deeper – thus, paradoxically, making a breakdown more likely.
For the truth is that we have reached the limit of what we can concede. Even getting the existing proposals through Parliament will be extraordinarily difficult. If Britain is seen to have bent over backwards and been rejected anyway, the mood in Parliament and the country will change very sharply.
And then? There would be some short-term disruption, no question. It would be felt most severely by the big corporations that have learned how to profit from the current arrangements, which is why they are understandably loud in their protests. But a mild economic jolt, leading to more global trading patterns, is far from the worst thing that can happen in the life of a nation. Ask the Qataris.
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