Charles Tannock is an MEP for London.
As the Brexit debate heats up, I repeatedly hear claims that the UK would quickly and easily negotiate trade deals with the Commonwealth outside of the EU. Furthermore, it is asserted that our current membership of the EU leads to discriminatory policies against the Commonwealth, particularly in the areas of trade and immigration.
Such a view is taken without appreciation of the EU’s very generous trade policies that benefit almost all of the other 52 Commonwealth countries. Under the EU’s General Scheme of Preferences (GSP), 27 Commonwealth Countries gain preferential access to the EU market. A further 15 do so via other trading agreements and – almost entirely forgotten – two others are members of the EU. So of the 50 non-EU Commonwealth countries, 42 have existing preferential access to the EU market and five others are negotiating Free Trade Agreements (FTA).
Fourteen Commonwealth countries, including Bangladesh, benefit from what is known as “Everything but Arms” (EBA). This status provides countries with duty free, quota free access to the EU, the only exception being on arms. Such a status is reserved for the very poorest and least developed countries of the world and is, by its design, very generous – with the aim of helping development.
A further 12 are part of the standard GSP, which reduces duties on 66 per cent of tariff lines. It is worth adding that this covers approximately 83 per cent of all the imports from the countries that benefit from the scheme, and so is disproportionately beneficial. The countries that benefit from this arrangement include India, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria. Pakistan, meanwhile, benefits form GSP Plus. This is a more generous form of GSP, and applies zero duty rates across the same 66 per cent of tariff lines as GSP. Sri Lanka previously benefited from GSP Plus, too, but lost the designation following allegations of atrocities committed against Tamil separatists during the civil war, since the status is linked to good governance and a country’s commitment to ensuring human rights.
Fifteen other countries – South Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Mauritius – have their own separate deals covering preferential trading in the form of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA). The remaining 12 are part of what is called Cariforum, a grouping of 16 countries in the Caribbean – it could almost be called the Commonwealth Forum! An agreement signed in 2008 offers 100 per cent tariff and quota free access to the EU market.
The agreement also paves the way for a reciprocation of terms for the EU to their own markets over a period of 25 years, with exemptions for around 17 per cent of goods and services, which are particularly sensitive and would be vulnerable to EU competition. Again, such deals are concluded with less developed countries in mind and aim to be generous. Eligibility for such schemes is linked to economic indicators which are monitored annually, and it is envisaged that they will graduate to fully-fledged, independent FTAs as they develop.
Turning to the more developed countries, Singapore has already concluded negotiations on an FTA, as has Canada, and both deals are now awaiting ratification. The agreement with Canada – CETA – is one of the EU’s most ambitious to date, and will see nearly 98 per cent of tariffs removed. Moves towards similar agreements with Australia and New Zealand are already underway, and CETA is seen as providing a good template for these negotiations. Whilst India currently enjoys GSP status, there is continued talk too aimed at replacing this with an FTA in recognition of its expanding economy.
The mythical post-Brexit deal of unfettered access to the Single Market without any obligations of freedom of movement most closely resembles the” Everything but Arms” status. But as explained above, however, such deals are only open to less developed countries and do not include services – a sector which constitutes over half of the UK economy.
Moving to immigration, it is an evident fact that EU citizens enjoy greater rights than Commonwealth citizens, but this statement alone omits any wider context. The population of the Commonwealth stands at around 2.5 billion, nearly a third of the global population. As the trade deals discussed above highlight, Commonwealth countries are overwhelmingly low and middle income countries, with the vast majority of citizens living in countries where the GDP per capita is below $2,000. The pull and push factors would therefore vastly outweigh anything we have seen from EU migration, which is balanced by two-way flows and, on the whole, similar standards of living.
Furthermore, the claims that talented Indian engineers and brain surgeons from New Zealand are being blocked from coming to the UK are not borne out by the official ONS statistics. The most recent figures showed that net-migration from outside of the EU is higher than that from it, proving that the most talented and desirable from the rest of the world are able to come to the UK and contribute to our economy. Other claims that the European Union is unique in offering preferential movement are also false. The reality is that a number of other regional blocs, such as ECOWAS and SAARC, also offer preferential movement rights and travel arrangements to their immediate neighbours that are not extended to European countries.
It is also widely forgotten that as a member of the EU, Britain can set whatever immigration policy it chooses to for other countries. If those advocating Brexit were truly motivated by their claims of discrimination against Commonwealth citizens, they could make the case for more generous migration rights already. The truth is that Commonwealth immigration was limited by the 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Acts, both predating our membership of the EU, in response to public demand. Furthermore, survey polls and attitude surveys suggest that there is little appetite for changing this.
Far from offering the Commonwealth a bad deal, the EU is offering incredibly generous access to the EU market and does not in any way prevent the UK from pursuing the immigration policy of its choice towards them. Even beyond these two issues, one can point to other benefits such as the development funding that Commonwealth countries are provided as part of the European Development Fund (EDF). Those looking for a fair deal for the Commonwealth should join the leaders of such Commonwealth countries as the Prime Ministers of India and Canada in supporting the campaign to Remain.