Amid speculation about Britain’s Erasmus membership and the future of the UK outside Europe, UK Minister Conor Burns told MWN that an “independent Britain” can remain a significant global actor.
Rabat – “It’s been a pleasure to be here this week…. I am confident that our relationship will even grow stronger in the years and months to come,” Conor Burns, a British Conservative MP and the UK Minister of State for International Trade, said in a press release the British embassy in Rabat sent out on the morning of January 10.
The note was an invitation to a group of journalists to attend a press conference the embassy had organized at the ambassador’s residence. Burns, the statement underlined, would be glad to meet with journalists and discuss the terms of the UK-Africa summit, to be held next week in London, as well as other niggling questions regarding post-Brexit Britain.
Brexit is about independence, seizing new opportunities
Burns, speaking that afternoon in what felt more like an informal conversation friends would have than a press conference, sounded relaxed. Throughout, he was mostly upbeat, oozing a sense of vague and yet stubborn happiness of someone with confidence that the future will be bright.
As he prefaced his talk with suggestions of Morocco and the UK having “many things in common” and needing to work together to capitalize on those shared interests, Burns may not have planned to make Brexit the centerpiece of his Moroccan visit.
He spoke about the need to spur bilateralism between an “independent UK” and scores of partners it may have neglected for the past decades. He dwelt on how the UK is a global leader on “green finances,” renewable energy, and an array of other sectors, as well as how it now seeks to export its expertise and experience to partners like Morocco—and the rest of Africa—in order to fully participate in global exchanges as an “independent” country.
The minister keenly emphasized that the organization of the UK-Africa summit, to be held on January 20 in London, is all about seizing “great strategic partnership opportunities.”
But Burns could not avoid talking about Brexit. To speak about the UK today is necessarily a prolonged exercise in Brexit-bashing or extolling.
“Morocco now knows that whatever happens on the terms of our trade will carry on uninterrupted,” he announced, referring to the post-Brexit, continuity agreement London and Rabat signed recently.
“And that degree of certainty for British businesses trading with Moroccan businesses is a really good thing.” But the continuity agreement, Burns added, is only a “basis” London seeks to expand on by embarking on new ventures with Morocco and other partners in Africa and elsewhere.
For the British minister, Brexit is ultimately about getting Britain—especially British businesses—out of the “complacency” in which the common EU market had put them. With Britain set to be on its own as soon as it exits the European Union on January 31 at 11 p.m., one challenge for the UK government and British businesses will include looking “again at parts of the world we may have understandably neglected because of our focus on EU trade.”
Erasmus still on the table
While Burns spoke, however, British social media was abuzz with speculations about the UK government’s apparent refusal to recommit to an EU-funded academic exchange scheme known as Erasmus+. Under the Erasmus program, according to reports, about 16,000 British students travel to more than 30 countries across Europe and “special” EU partners like Morocco, Turkey, and Israel, among others.
On January 8 last week, Conservative MPs voted down an amendment requiring the government to include Erasmus-linked clauses in negotiations with the EU on the ultimate terms of Brexit. In response to the amendment, introduced by Liberal Democrat MPs, the Boris Johnson-led government notably replied that it would only recommit to keeping Erasmus membership “if it is in our interests.”
That reply, which was nothing like the unambiguous reassurance the opposition had hoped for, was instantly interpreted as yet another instance of the Conservative government provincializing the UK and slamming the door on Europe on every available occasion.
On social media and in a number of think pieces, remainers have complained about the unbearable costs of Brexit and what they see as the Conservative politicians’ “unforgivable” lack of a coherent vision regarding the future of a post-Brexit Britain. Leaving the Erasmus scheme, many lamented, would be a fatal blow to the country’s educational system, especially to thousands of low-income students who normally rely on the Erasmus scheme to embark on overseas programs they could not have otherwise afforded.
“My world was small and it grew big, thanks to my experiences in Europe…. It’s a beautiful thing to mix with other cultures, especially when you’re young. It didn’t have to end here,” Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy wrote in a moving article.
According to Burns, however, the Erasmus obsession, or at least the opposition’s continued frenzy over something, according to Burns, the government had not even said, should not be given that much interest or public attention. It is a non event, he insisted.
“The first thing to say is that the government has not said that we weren’t continuing with Erasmus. That may well be something we include in the negotiations,” he asserted, passionately emphasizing his and the government’s commitment to keeping the UK in the Erasmus scheme, or at least finding alternative arrangements that would still allow British students to benefit from Erasmus-like programs.
The reason Conservative MPs voted against the Erasmus amendment, he argued, “is that we are done with the idea that parliament is going to dictate to the government what it does and doesn’t negotiate.” According to Burns, while the parliament can and should “scrutinize” the government’s actions, it cannot dictate what the government should do. “Voting down that amendment, which compelled the government to stay in Erasmus was really about saying, ‘No, sorry. That’s over now.’”
He added, as if to definitively dismiss all the speculation, that he and the majority of the government, including Boris Johnson, are passionately attached to schemes like Erasmus.
“Erasmus is very much still on the table. You don’t have to be a member of the EU to participate. Israel participates in Erasmus, and the last time I checked Israel isn’t planning to join the EU and certainly isn’t currently a member of the EU…. I passionately agree with the contribution that international education makes to the United Kingdom….
“I wouldn’t serve in a government that didn’t think things like Erasmus were a good thing, and I don’t think the Prime Minister would lead a government that didn’t think that. So I would hope that as we conduct negotiations Erasmus or some form of Erasmus would still remain part of the framework of the infrastructure of the relationship between an independent United Kingdom and our neighbors and closest allies in the EU. ”
Hitting the reset button
Burns’s pointed dismissal of the Erasmus-linked speculation was hardly a novelty, however. If anything, a number of senior government officials had already emphatically decried the entire Erasmus fever as soon as news and think pieces started making the point that Boris Johnson and his “get Brexit done” team had no intention of keeping the UK near anything remotely EU-linked. But the Erasmus speculation and finger-pointing has continued over the week.
“You can see Britain’s horizons shrinking,” Nick Cohen recently wrote in an unambiguously Brexit damning column. Cohen went to speak of “ignorant Brexit populism,” likening the government’s Erasmus stance to the “closing of the British mind.”
The “closing mind” argument, an obvious reference to Alan Bloom’s best-selling book, “The closing of the American mind,” served to stress remainers’ fears that the UK, no longer the powerful empire and great country Conservative appear to be nostalgic of when they insist on “getting back control,” is set to disastrously fail and ridicule itself should it leave Europe.
Following suit, academic and journalist Will Hutton even called on remainers to somehow resist Brexit and hope for a future where, once Conservatives realize what everyone else already knew (that Britain is irrelevant in world affairs today without the European cover), there would be a possibility of rejoining the EU. “So at 11 p.m. on 31 January, dismiss Johnson’s extravagant claims… and the faux celebrations…. We stand for a European Britain. We will be back,” Hutton said.
For all the compelling enthusiasm of political commentators like Cohen and Hutton, they somehow help make Burns’ and pro-Brexit Europeans’ case that the whole Brexit “hell,” as predicted by many, is mainly about remainers’ unabashed insistence that they know better than the people, and that ordinary people, or voters, should not be trusted with complex political decisions.
Burns may not have expressed his position in those exact terms during the prolonged, conversation-like “press conference.” But his tone and stresses as he answered a barrage of post-Brexit Britain-related questions suggested that he was well aware of the hefty baggage the very idea of Brexit carries in the context of contemporary British history.
The idea that Britain’s future lies in Europe—and by extension that Britain is doomed without the EU—is perhaps the single most important notion to have emerged among large sections of Britain’s thinking class, especially critics of the Conservatives, since the end of World War II.
The argument, as Ian Gilmour put it in a 1998 review of “The Blessed Plot” by Hugo Young —perhaps the most enthusiastically pro-European of British commentators—is that “Britain’s days as a great power are irretrievably past,” and that failing to understand this is a monumental political misjudgment, or another instance of Conservative politicians’ self-absorbed overestimation of Britain’s power or relevance in world affairs.
Burns fundamentally disagrees. As he sees it, these are different times with different challenges, and an “independent Britain” still has the human potential and financial means to remain a significant actor, even a global power, in the decades ahead. “We have been through three years of hell,” he said, lamenting the fact that “some sections” of the opposition have repeatedly tried to prevent something the British people have voted for.
He did not say how exactly the UK would thrive without Europe, but he suggested he believed there are reasons to support the case that Britain’s future is not as gloomy as some have predicted. “So in that sense, leaving the European Union allows Britain to press the reset button on how it sees itself as a global economic and trading partner,” he said.