Let’s look forward. We have no idea which way the coin will fall over our trade relationship with Europe, but can have a feeling for how our trading relationships will shift in the coming years.
Whatever happens we will be trading less with Europe and more with the rest of the world.
There are a number of reasons why. One is that Continental European economies will grow more slowly than those of the other continents. America is growing faster, Asia is growing faster, Africa is, so too is Australasia/Oceania.
Whatever happens we will be trading less with Europe and more with the rest of the world
That is partly a matter of population growth for, Japan apart, Europe has the oldest age structure of the developed world.
But it is also a function of catchup – the emerging world is closing the technological gap with the developed world and hence has more potential for rapid growth.
There are other factors. The UK trades a lot with Europe because of its physical proximity. But even with Europe there are supply chain issues, and one of the effects of the pandemic has been for companies to switch where possible to local suppliers.
Maybe you pay a bit more, but at least you have security of supply. Result: we will buy less from Europe, substituting imports with domestic production.
More important still, there seems to be a general switch from trade in goods to trade in services. Even before the pandemic struck, international goods trade was starting to decline as a percentage of global output. Services trade, while smaller, continued to climb.
The UK has a competitive advantage in services, as the second largest net exporter after the US, and that increasingly will be where our future will lie. Most of those services go to the rest of the world, not Europe.
So our trade moves away from Europe. Where does it go? There is a pat answer which is to say that it goes to the 85 per cent of the world economy that is not the EU.
That is fine, but actually there is a more positive point to be made. It is to note that much of our trade will shift towards the English-speaking world, the Anglosphere.
That expression is sometimes seen as a nostalgic vision, a harking-back to days of Empire and a feeble attempt to cling on to the special relationship with the US. If you think that, consider this.
In 2030, the most populous country of the Americas will be the US, English-speaking. That of Africa, Nigeria, where English is the principal language.
That of Asia will be India, which will have passed China, and where English is the unifying language despite the promotion of Hindi. Australia is the most populous part of Oceania.
And Europe? Well, the UK will still be smaller than Germany in population, but last year’s UN projections suggested that we would pass Germany in population around 2070-75. That is a way off and in any case the UK may not hold together. But the economic point stands. The English-speaking world looks like having a good run over the next generation.
As for the Commonwealth, again seen by many in nostalgic terms, it is a club countries evidently want to join.
Only one member, the Republic of Ireland, has left and not sought to rejoin. Currently, there are five potential additional members, with a combined population of 44million. And by the way, we signed a trade deal with Singapore last week.
None of this is to welcome a punch-up with Europe. Disruption is always bad, and we will get that whatever the outcome of the current talks. Good people, good companies, will be damaged.
We may fail to make the best of the opportunities that open up. But if we have learnt one thing from the past few months it is that businesses are wonderfully flexible. Once there is clarity they will adapt.
International air travel is at a near standstill, foreign holidays are out, and curbs everywhere will probably tighten. So you float an agency that organises holiday lets and what happens? It is worth more than $100billion.
The extraordinary success of the Wall Street launch of Airbnb last week carries two powerful messages and I am not sure which is the more important.
One is there is a wall of money prepared to sweep into anything remotely high-tech. The other is that investors are prepared to look through several gloomy months and glimpse the sunlit uplands ahead. Fingers crossed it is more the second than the first.
If it is just speculative money bedazzled by the high-tech boom, then the reckoning will be nasty indeed.