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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Brexit's imminent arrival has made the UK reach out to the rest of the world

The downsides of the UK's EU divorce have been well signposted, but a no-deal outcome does not have to be a disaster

The future of Theresa May's Brexit plan is uncertain, but the UK still has options. Getty Images/Matt Dunham
The future of Theresa May's Brexit plan is uncertain, but the UK still has options. Getty Images/Matt Dunham

For all the storms in Westminster over Theresa May’s Brexit plans, there is an overlooked development.

The UK has moved forward in loosening its ties to Europe. The world’s interest − or at least that of Britain’s friends and allies − in this happening in as orderly a manner as possible is great.

This process of disengagement is of global relevance, because it grants Britain greater scope for deeper relationships with non-EU countries. At the top of the pile are the nations of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

This is true not only because London needs to expand its pool of alliances, but also because the pillars of its foreign policy will shift to compensate for lost trade with Europe.

The traditional relationship with the GCC spans not only trade and finance. There is also a long history in terms of security, and an active strategic agenda.

By way of illustration, defence officials have strengthened the British naval presence in Bahrain and, in recent weeks, agreed a military training base in Oman.

The withdrawal of Britain’s presence east of Suez coincided with preparations to align with the European Community in the early 1970s. It is no coincidence that these bonds are being restored as the process of leaving the EU moves forward.

Traditional friends of Britain have been frustrated − as have many supporters of Brexit − that Mrs May has expended so much time and effort trying to arrange a lengthy transition with the European trading bloc.

Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister, spoke for many in a recent article for The Spectator magazine. “Britain has nothing to lose except the shackles that the EU imposes on it. After the courage shown by its citizens in the referendum, it would be a tragedy if political leaders go wobbly now,” he wrote. “Britain’s future has always been global, rather than just with Europe. Like so many of Britain’s admirers, I want to see this great country seize this chance and make the most of it.”

With the knives out for Mrs May, and near-universal predictions of parliamentary failure for her Brexit deal, Mr Abbott’s view could be timely.

It should be noted Britain has taken on board the urgency of raising its independent profile in the areas of defence and commerce. The UAE is now home to a British regional trade envoy, one of three ambassador-rank officials from the country based here.

From the start, Liam Fox, the secretary of state for international trade, has made it clear that a GCC free-trade deal was a priority. There is also great potential for both sides in new, bespoke investment accords and financial instruments.

In its determination to charm policy-makers and business leaders in the UAE, British officials must also address the need to grant visa-free travel to the nation’s citizens. They are, after all, holders of one of the world’s most secure and “powerful” passports.

Mrs May’s accord with Brussels addresses none of these issues directly. Any British-EU customs union is likely to reduce the scope of future deals that Britain could sign with other countries.

However, the UK will now regain sovereign control of its immigration system. It is likely that this will create a level playing field for foreign nationals seeking access to the UK.

For example, the preferential treatment of European students has crowded out potential applicants from the Gulf. Under current arrangements, it is considerably more expensive for non-EU citizens to gain access to one of the world’s most renowned university systems than it is for EU nationals.

Change is on the way. The disruptive elements of Brexit have all been well signposted. But it is also worth stepping back and looking at the rebalancing of relationships that is in the works.

Nothing about Brexit has been predictable. The big pitfall facing British allies in the near future is not even that Brexit goes badly wrong. It is that it goes badly wrong and that under those circumstances Jeremy Corbyn – a man who has a historic relationship with Iran and has received payment for appearances on the state-run channel Press TV, now banned in the UK − takes over.

Should the deal that emerged last week develop into the template for Brexit, there will be a series of new opportunities for those states placed on the sidelines during the UK’s 46-year membership of the EU.

It could, however, be dead on arrival. But, should the May plan fail, a no-deal outcome does not have to be fatal, as Mr Abbott noted. After two years of bureaucratic wrangling, there is at least the potential for Britain to make a clean break and reach out to the rest of the world.