Britain votes to leave the EU: the implications for China

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 28, 2016
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Not only the U.K., but Europe and the world were stunned by the unexpected vote of the British referendum on continued membership inthe EU. Prime Minister David Cameron had included the promise of such a referendum in his election manifesto last year, intending to cut the ground from under the feet of the rival UK Independence Party (UKIP). This was initially successful, UKIP being restricted to only one parliamentary seat. No doubt Mr. Cameron thought that the referendum itself would be a formality, as during the 43 years of EU membership the U.K. economy has become strongly intertwined with EU partners and many important interests were at stake. And indeed, until voting was over, the consensus of opinion in the media and on the financial markets was that Britain was bound to play safe and opt to stay in the organization.

But Britain and Europe woke up on Friday morning to find that the voters had confounded all their expectations. The margin of victory was narrow, but decisive: 51.9 percent of British voters voted to leave the EU. Britain herself now enters a period of introspection, considering the internal implications – Scotland, which narrowly voted to reject independence two years ago, voted 62-38 percent to stay in the EU, which will bring the independence issue straight back up to the surface again, and Northern Ireland also voted to maintain EU ties, which will once more raise the question of leaving the U.K. to join the fervently EU-supporting Republic of Ireland to the south.

Quite naturally, other countries inside and outside Europe are focussing on what this means for global economic relations. After all, the U.K. has not maintained bilateral trade agreements with any other country; she has always negotiated as part of the EU. This will now have to change.

China, who always tries to avoid interference in the affairs of other countries or regions, has nonetheless expressed concerns. Finance Minister Lou Jiwei has already said that it was not yet possible to predict the full consequences of the British vote; they were likely to be momentous and long-lasting. This is sensible. The real consequences will probably only become clear five to ten years down the road, if not even later. Mr. Lou did not accord much significance to the turbulence on the financial markets on Friday, saying "the knee-jerk reaction from the market is probably a bit excessive and needs to calm down and take an objective view."

Indeed, the plunge in the British stock markets which predictably occurred in the first hours of Friday morning had largely corrected itself by the end of trading, and the London market closed higher than it had the week before. Currency markets might take a bit longer to stabilize, leaving Chinese investors in the U.K. looking at losses due to the fall of the sterling, but currency markets also adjust themselves eventually. Provided that the withdrawal negotiations with the EU are handled sensibly, the inward investment climate in Britain will not suffer. (This will probably take some time too, as Prime Minister Cameron has declared his intention to resign – but only in October; the opposition Labour Party is also in complete turmoil.)

But does this mean that Britain has turned in on herself and decided to show a cold shoulder to the outside world? The contrary is true. British disputes with the EU were always, in the last resort, on the subject of free trade. Free trade remains our defining principle. We are still anxious to trade with Europe and the rest of the world; we note that the EU has been working on a trade agreement with China for thirty years and has not concluded one yet. We will happily work on trade agreements with our commercial partners old and new, but we will continue to trade actively while negotiations are in progress. We wish no harm to the EU, but, sadly, a powerful voice for free trade is now lost to it. We hope that this does not lead to a new push for protectionism among our erstwhile partners, but we are certainly no protectionists.

There will be volatility in the markets. The great continent of Europe will have to reconstitute itself. Fears that the British vote may herald a pause, or even a reversal, of the inexorable globalization process, are surely misplaced, at least in the medium to long term. Inevitably, the complex negotiations on the "Brexit" will occupy a lot of British time and energy, but they certainly will not hamper our efforts to secure our position in an uncertain world by ensuring that our economic links stay as diverse as possible.

China remains the economic powerhouse of the 21st century. We want to tell our Chinese friends and partners that we remain open for business.

Tim Collard is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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