On behalf of the Maldives, I don’t just respect the Brexit vote – I welcome it

On behalf of the Maldives, I don’t just respect the Brexit vote – I welcome it

The diplomatic lexicon is – by nature – cautious. Little room is left for exuberance; reservation prevails. So it has been with Brexit. The oft-repeated phrase we hear is “we respect the decision of the British people”. However, I – as Maldives Ambassador to the UK – will go further: I welcome it.

I see a new era of Maldivian-British relations. Our histories have been entwined since the Maldives became a British protected state in 1886. After independence in 1965, the bond remained. But that deep connection has been diluted in recent years by the nation’s membership of the European Union (EU). Now, free from barriers and middlemen, this will no doubt change.

Our countries share similarities. We are both traditional maritime traders off larger continents – Europe in the case of the UK, South Asia for the Maldives. My archipelago’s strategic position between Africa and Asia meant it was key in shipping routes through the ages (this holds true today). Britain, likewise, has its own grand tradition: the nation was critical in establishing the great free trade era in the 19th century. Now in 2017, It’s time for us to look back to those times if we are to find the right route forward.

Released from the shackles of the EU, the UK and the Maldives can sign a Free Trade Agreement. Currently, all Maldivian goods bound for the British market must first clear the barriers of EU legislation. Critically, this hampers our largest export: tuna.

There lies a 24% tariff. This – quite clearly – makes our goods less competitive in Europe. It also means that the bloc captures effectively a fifth of the wholesale value once inside the market. Yet there is one exception: fresh tuna destined for processing in the EU has a 0% tariff.

Economic issues always have moral facets. The outline of this one never strays too far behind discussions of trade barriers: should protecting domestic industries in the EU come before developing nations’ advancement?

In allowing 0% tariffs on canning-bound tuna, the EU artificially creates the conditions to capture more of the value chain. At the same time, it stymies the development of canning facilities in the Maldives by encouraging raw export. The long-term consequences of this is a lack of development. Business is not self-defeating. If trade barriers make it unfeasible to evolve industries, companies won’t do it.

Of course, we could in theory negotiate a free trade deal with the EU. However, reality tempers this ambition. It is not a negotiation between two parties (the Maldives and the EU) but one involving 29 (the Maldives and 28 states of the EU). This compounds complication: the deal must satisfy 29 sets of differing needs and priorities. If one nation feels an industry of theirs is threatened, the bloc moves as one, closing ranks and pricing incoming goods out of competition.

Bilateral free trade agreements are preferable; two parties, two sets of needs, one solution. It is that straightforward. Complexity shredded, the deal has a far greater chance of being fairer and mutually beneficial. And with simplicity comes speed. EU deals swallow time. (Canada’s took over eight years to negotiate.) It seems the old maxim of chefs and broths holds true. A Britain independent of the EU will be more agile.

Together, we can sign a deal responsive to the contemporary environment and reflective of the true needs of the Maldives and the UK. We both export things the other needs. For British consumers, this would primarily mean getting cheaper, better quality and sustainably caught fish (fresh and tinned). In the other direction, our market will be open to a whole range of UK goods.

The Maldives is a net importer. Currently we import over €3.5 billion from nations outside the EU, compared with just €300 million from the bloc. Therefore the opportunity for the UK to step up its exports to the Maldives within a new Free Trade Agreement is there for the taking.

For with more capital flowing across our borders, we will have more to spend on imports. Prominent amongst them from the UK will be equipment, aircraft parts and high-end goods that are key to expanding our flourishing tourism industry. And Britain – free from a regulatory framework not always grounded in sound science (unlike WTO regulations) – will be able to save costs on getting goods to market. This will not just be good for consumers on the ground, but the collective prosperity of both countries.

The Maldives is ready to negotiate. After two years of discussions, we have just signed a Free Trade Agreement with China. Meanwhile, we are in the middle of talks with the UAE and Hong Kong, as well as already having several agreements in place with India and Singapore on trade.

Outside superstructures, British and Maldivian goals on the world stage are also likely to converge. Some sectors of the international community are making a concerted push – ahead of the World Trade Organisation meeting in December – for a greater allowance for subsidised fishing. They argue anti-competition laws in this sector be toned down further still. Yet this will hurt any nation that exports (competitive) fish. Britain, independent of the Common Fisheries Policy, and the Maldives both now have a vested interest in lobbying together against such changes.

These are just a few reasons I feel confident to proclaim my enthusiasm for the UK-Maldives relationship post-Brexit. It offers opportunities that I expect will only grow stronger. And with a UK setting its own priorities, our goals at the international level – particularly with regard to trade – will likely become more aligned. The UK is the European country that knows the Maldives best. With Britain outside of the EU, our relationship will once again reflect this.