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The consequences of what has already happened and the consequences of what is yet to come

January 8th, 2017

 

Britain is Brexiting, Trump is triumphant in the USA, France is flirting with the Front National and in countries as diverse as Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands, the far right is doing more than alright.  Yes, yes, but what does it mean?

Much energy has been expended analysing why populism and the alt right are doing so well right now.  Rather less has been spent on considering the practical implications not just for individual countries but for the world as a whole.

The single most obvious consequence, from which many other consequences will flow, is that there will be less co-operation between Western governments in both the short and medium term.  Britain by definition is seeking to co-operate less with other EU countries by Brexiting.  The prospects for harmonious working relationships with other EU countries during the transition and for a while thereafter look bleak.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s agenda looks to set a radical discontinuity from that the USA has previously followed, with all the indications that he is going to take an aggressive “America first” approach that will set the USA at odds with its historical allies on many subjects.  Other hard right politicians and populists trade on putting their own country first at the expense of other countries that are perceived to be free-loading in some way, so if they are electorally successful they will be looking to reduce co-operation too.

So we are entering a period in the short and medium term where Western countries will no longer aspire to co-operate with each other to anything like the same degree as previously.  This reduced co-operation will lead to more competition between different Western states, some continuing to operate as a bloc and some now acting individually.  This will inevitably reduce the collective effectiveness of all of the Western countries.  So Western governments will weaken relative to other countries, over and above the weakening that is taking place as the rest of the world closes the gap economically on the West.

This is not a new trend.  With the EU having been internally divided for some time, the formalisation of one aspect of those internal divisions through Britain leaving the EU is merely a continuation of this decline.

This weakening will be felt most strongly among the more weakly performing Western countries under the most stress.  Both France and Britain have pretensions to global importance that are not backed up by their economic performance.  Their pretensions are likely to become steadily less sustainable.

So, other governments are by default going to become more influential.  We have had lots of commentary about how Russia is projecting its power, but it is merely the most visible (and probably not the greatest) beneficiary of this trend.  China will benefit most as the non-Western country with the largest economy and the greatest global reach.  India also will see enhanced standing.  Other countries will more effectively be able to play off Western powers that compete against each other.  Soft power just got a lot softer. 

All the time, Europe will seem less and less relevant as power shifts south and east.  This may be the moment that confirms when Europe falls off the pace of the very top tier of world civilisation.  If so, it may well prove to be the most important inflexion point of the century.

Just as Western governments will weaken relative to other countries, they will weaken relative to non-government actors. Large corporations will be more influential with individual governments, since those governments will co-operate less on developing a common front.  Tax avoidance and arbitrage is likely to rise as governments compete more overtly with each other to secure the tax revenues of large multi-nationals.  Similarly, the very wealthiest individuals who are mobile will be able to secure still more favourable treatment from states looking for taxes.  All other things being equal, collective tax takes of Western countries are likely to decline.

This in turn will make it still harder for European governments in particular to sustain their high tax high spend model of government.   This is unlikely to benefit the poorest in society, who rely on public spending.  Government is likely to prove an exercise in reducing public expectations of what government can afford.

Other non-government actors are also likely to benefit.  With declining inter-governmental co-operation, international criminals of all stripes are likely to find life easier.  Terrorists’ plans will be harder to track.  New criminal practices will be more difficult to spot.

All of these consequences arise before we get to consider the impact of increased informal trade barriers.  But that’s for another day.  I wouldn’t want to be accused of being too negative all in one go.

Alastair Meeks