How do Britain’s divorce proceedings look from a Mediterranean standpoint?



These are strange and confusing times for the many European citizens and European nations that know or admire the United Kingdom. Many of us are still at a loss to understand what the country hopes to gain by leaving the European Union, or how the UK intends to go it alone. But the talks about the terms under which Britain will leave the EU are well under way, and I believe that we should consider whether there is any useful advice or insights we can provide from the Mediterranean perspective. Are there practical ways in which the countries of our region can help Britain once Brexit takes place?

As a Cypriot and a European, I can say that Europe will miss the UK, because it always represented a balance or alternative to the views of Germany and France. Cyprus has long wanted to collaborate with Britain, though there is an element of love-hate in the relationship. The same goes for the Mediterranean countries of the Levant, which still suffer from the divisive politics that Britain fostered at the time of the Balfour Declaration. Lines were drawn on the map with the sole purpose of serving the interests of the great powers – Britain, France, the USA. That carving-up of ancient lands ignored the needs and the futures of the peoples who lived there. A century on, Britain has a chance to redefine its trade principles, and its wider relationship with the Middle East.

The Med, for its part, recognises the synergies that exist, both culturally and from a business perspective. There is discussion now about how Cyprus might become a kind of Ireland of the eastern Med – both in terms of capital markets and exportable goods. So Britain will have Ireland to one side of it and Cyprus to the other – albeit further away. In the case of both of those islands – as different as they are – there is an old backward-looking colonial connection that can be transformed into a new forward-looking trade-based relationship.

Because it is not politics that matters, but trade. In the modern world, it is trade that blazes a trail for foreign policy, defence and security; it is no longer the case that foreign policy and defence come first, with trade tagging along after. Britain needs to believe in its niche, to decide what it wants to trade, and on what terms. It must learn from the mistakes that have been made in the Med. In the past, the Med countries lost their way because they did not have confidence in themselves. They took to hoovering up the economic crumbs. The mentality was: if Lebanon fails, Cyprus benefits, because lots of Lebanese will come in and buy houses here and put their money in the Cypriot banks. Or if Turkish tourism fails, Egyptian tourism will boom. Britain doesn’t want to find itself in that kind of undignified position; it must not become a carrion economy. Britain needs to reject the politics of fragmentation, and instead embrace the politics of unity and strength.

To use a piece of corporate jargon, Britain needs to ‘find its power offer’. It needs to decide who it wants to trade with and what it wants to trade. Creating synergies with North Africa and the Levant is a better idea than relying primarily on America. Britain’s trade relationships have long depended on southern Europe –not so much on France and Germany. If it does not appear so, that is only because Europe has absorbed the south into its own trade agreements. But look at the statistics: the aggregated data show that Britain ranks 11th on the import scale, with $61 billion worth of British goods going into Mediterranean markets. Germany, meanwhile, ranks first, with $259 billion worth of German goods entering those same markets. As for the export rankings, the UK lies in fourth place as a destination for Mediterranean goods ($104 billion); Germany tops the rankings, taking in just over $200 billion worth of exported Mediterranean goods.

Since the Brexit vote, Prime Minister Theresa May has been courting Turkish leader Recep Erdogan and others – because that’s what the defence and lobby (key bilateral trade component) seem to want – but when it comes to autocratic regimes such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Britain merely sells; it does not trade. Selling alone is not a viable sustainable power offer in an interdependent world.

Britain can find a way out of this tangle. The obstacles are psychological as much as they are fiscal or geopolitical. Britain’s identity crisis has yet to bottom out; the British mindset is still woefully backward-looking and imperial. But listen, Britain: you cannot return to the power structures that served you well in the First and Second World Wars and through the Cold War. What you can do is have close relationships with numerous countries, and you can develop a new understanding of what it means to exert power in the world, to be this cold and unusual island on the edge of Europe. With some new thinking on trade and diplomacy, Britain can be a force for change. Britons have to re-imagine what their country is, or might yet become.