West goes back to the future, apart from Brexit Britain

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Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Photo: Reuters / Simon Dawson

As a new year approaches, there seems little for the West to cheer about. Parts of Europe look to be facing economic turmoil, while the United Kingdom is divisively and emotively split between pro and anti Europeans.

The United States is also damagingly divided along bitter cultural, economic and political lines. As investigations intensify on a growing political, and perhaps even criminal, scandal in Washington, many wonder if it could all end up with the president being impeached.

Yet despite being in a constant battle with the FBI, he remains belligerent. He is blindly bullish on his own achievements and on the domestic economy. He stays close to Moscow – many say too close – and also works hard to keep tight with Beijing.

And his talk of war in Asia continues to dominate headlines. In December, one of the president’s senior aides said that the US would, if necessary, “strike hard … and keep on striking until the enemy’s will was broken.”

Always moaning about how his country’s coffers have to prop up Europe’s defences, the US president has also threatened to leave NATO while his own support of Israel is receiving worldwide condemnation.

The situation in the Middle East is chaotic and is a risk not just to the world’s oil supply but to the entire planet’s stability. And to make matters worse, terrorism has grown to new levels and is now a very live threat in all cities across the western world.

So will it be a weary welcome to 2018? Actually, no. The year I described here was 1973. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it is the same thing) as they say.

But probably not in Brexit Britain. The UK entered the European Community, the forerunner of the European Union, on January 1, 1973. The other events from that year – President Richard Nixon and Watergate, the oil crisis, the Vietnam War and the different terror cells that started their urban bombing campaigns – do seem like events from another planet, despite the stark similarities to 2017.

As for the British gripes, groans and hysterical howls that arose from the UK’s entry into Europe, it could quite possibly have come from yesterday. To mark the Britain’s 1973 entry into Europe, then Prime Minister Edward Heath addressed the nation on TV.

“There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty,” he said. “These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified.” Yet the fact remains, for an insular, presumptuously proud and more than slightly xenophobic UK, these fears never, over four decades, really went away.

It is not hard to work out why every living prime minister wanted the UK to stay in the EU and this once included Theresa May before she took office. Now, she is being visibly destroyed by her attempts to carry out what she calls a “clean Brexit.”

The EU brings with it a stack of big-picture benefits that include membership of what is probably the world’s strongest economic, political and cultural alliance of 28 countries and half a billion people.

Leaving means unraveling a 40-year legislative labyrinth of laws, contracts and strategic alliances, and possibly could also trigger a journey into the economic wilderness.

In December, researchers from Birmingham University’s City Region Economic and Development Institute found that 2.64% of the EU’s GDP was at risk because of Brexit trade-related consequences.  The figure for Britain was 12%.

This, concluded the report unsurprisingly, will leave the UK in a much weaker economic bargaining position.

There is a notion, largely aired by those on the right-wing fringes of Brexit’s pro-leave camp, that saying goodbye to the EU will take the nation back to a pre-1973 world. It is a so-called Empire 2.0, where London will be free to rejuvenate trading alliances with its old colonial allies.

Critics of this notion point out that the UK was not exactly in great shape in 1973. It was a time of dying imperialist power, widespread industrial unrest, power shortages and economic stagnation.

Anyway, say these critics, the world has, quite simply, moved on and Britannia has not ruled the waves now for quite some time.

Indeed, the British government’s more pragmatic tack seems to be to try to retain as strong a tie with Europe as is possible – the much talked about “soft Brexit” – while working hard to cultivate new ones. And that, of course, means China.

The UK apparently, now sits at the end of China’s Belt and Road Iniative. Yes, the phrase does sound odd because it is odd. But it does not really matter if this apparent position is real, supposed, metaphorical or symbolic.

Because the situation is that Britain does seem to have been coerced into playing a very real and strong, supporting role to China’s Belt and Road project.

By doing this, it will presumably receive favorable post-Brexit trade terms, while for China it is not dissimilar to its nuclear power station new build program in the UK, which is being carried out for reasons that are more about reputation than commerce.

Get a license for a nuclear power station in Britain, goes the plan, and you will be able to get a nuclear power station license anywhere.

Similarly, when a country with such a historically powerful diplomatic and commercial legacy as the UK starts earnestly marching down your new, Made in China Silk Road then there is a good chance it will give the whole thing a much bolder air of legitimacy and, indeed, success.

When Britain joined Europe 45 years ago such a close union would have been unthinkable and not just because China was then largely  in economic and social disarray because of the Cultural Revolution.

Diplomatic relations between the two in the early 1970s were frosty to say the least. China still held active plans to invade and take back Hong Kong and petty military border skirmishes between the two were still then fairly common.

Also, the British embassy in Beijing had been destroyed a few years earlier when Red Guards seized it and attacked its staff. How times have changed.

Internationally, things started moving for China when Nixon, who had always been up to that point staunchly and vocally anti-communist, traveled to China in 1972 and famously met Chairman Mao. In doing so he became the first US President to visit the country.

Like President Donald Trump today, he was famously immodest when he dubbed his visit: “The week that changed the world.” He was, rarely perhaps for him, close to the truth.

The Shanghai Communiqué that he signed amid the stunning art deco splendor of the Jinjiang Hotel, agreed to normalize relations between the two countries and ended 25 years of silence between Washington and Beijing.

After Nixon’s trip, trade between the two countries started and China was duly admitted into the United Nations. In 1973 “liaison offices” were opened in both capitals and these were a precursor to full diplomatic relations.

The Shanghai Communiqué has been the guide to this globally key relationship ever since and can be seen as the start of China’s incredible economic journey.

The journey for Nixon was less glittering. His trip to China certainly gave him a place in the history books. But then so too did other things. In 1974, as the Watergate inquiry turned criminal and Nixon was about to be impeached, he resigned his Presidency.

Because of these events – in China, the Middle East, Washington and Europe – 1973 has been called “the year that changed everything”. So what for 2018? “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” as they might be saying. But probably not in Brexit Britain.

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