Brexit offers a vital lesson for HK

Updated: 2016-06-29 08:41

By Andrew Mitchell(HK Edition)

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Andrew Mitchell warns that Hong Kong people cannot afford to make the same mistake as their UK counterparts who have shunned their major trading partner

As the world sets about dealing with the fallout from the United Kingdom referendum on membership of the European Union, it is perhaps an appropriate moment to reflect on some of the intellectual currents that may have driven the British people away from the European community in such a decisive manner.

To what extent the British were ever really part of the European community is, of course, a moot point. Since joining the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor to the EU, in 1973, the UK has had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with Europe, signing all the major EU treaties but opting out of core initiatives such as currency union and the abolition of internal border controls.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that much of the dissatisfaction with the EU among the British public appears to center around the issue of immigration, with the general perception being that the UK is no longer in control of its own borders. However, the fact is that anyone seeking to enter Britain from outside the EU, including the hundred thousand or so asylum seekers from the latest wave of refugees to Europe, is subject to UK immigration laws. Moreover, according to figures provided by Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, the number of asylum applications for the UK last year was only 60 for every 100,000 residents - far less than the EU average of 260.

Much of the anti-immigration sentiment in the UK, however, is not directed toward refugees, but rather to migrants from within the EU. Since 2004, when 10 additional nations (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Malta and Cyprus) were admitted into the EU, over 400,000 people from these countries have exercised their right to freedom of movement and residence throughout the EU in order to settle permanently in the UK. In a time of economic austerity this has put considerable pressure on the local employment market, and on basic services such as schools and hospitals.

In addition to immigration-related issues, the campaign for a UK withdrawal from the EU (the "Brexit" movement) was fueled by a desire among many Britons to be independent of the supranational institutions of the EU. These were portrayed in the popular press, with a certain degree of accuracy, as being unaccountable and bureaucratic, adding grist to the mill of the "Leave" campaign. Nevertheless the result of the referendum, with 52 percent of voters choosing to leave the EU, came as something of a surprise to the UK establishment, which now faces the myriad challenges of Brexit with a departing prime minister and widespread turbulence in the global financial markets, and with yet another referendum on Scottish independence on the cards.

All these issues - concerns about asylum seekers, problems with internal migrants, and a desire for greater independence - will be familiar to anyone who has followed the political situation in Hong Kong in recent years. Indeed they can be seen as part of a global phenomenon, personified in the United States by Donald Trump, the presumptive candidate for the Republican Party in this year's presidential elections. Reacting to the result of the UK referendum, Trump tweeted, "They (the British people) took their country back, just like we will take America back."

It is difficult not to be concerned by such knee-jerk nationalism. For in these challenging economic times, what the world needs most of all is political leaders with an international outlook; leaders who are willing to look beyond the insular concerns of their people to ensure the long-term prosperity of their societies; leaders who, quite simply, are prepared to prioritize pragmatic economic policies over empty political posturing.

Hong Kong is no exception. Indeed, as an international finance and trade center, it has an essential role to play in the global economy, facilitating the further development of China as an economic powerhouse. However, it can only really fulfill this role if its leaders can see beyond petty concerns with immigration and unrealizable notions of independence to focus on the real issue of the day: How to maximize Hong Kong's connectivity and maintain its preeminence in a fast-changing global environment.

Hong Kong is clearly very different from the UK. For one thing it is not a country. Nevertheless, as the tide of nativism slowly flows across the political landscape here, Hong Kong people are in danger of making the same fundamental mistake as their counterparts in the UK: Turning their back on their major trading partner. If they allow this to happen, the consequences could be disastrous. Rather than becoming more insular, it should become even more global, capitalizing on its hard-earned connectivity.

Brexit is a warning, and we simply cannot afford to ignore it.

Brexit offers a vital lesson for HK

(HK Edition 06/29/2016 page15)