This week, the Indian Prime Minister visited the UK just a couple of weeks after the Chinese President did the same. Both were sumptuously hosted, but the main events were trade deals. In between the two visits, though much less reported, the UK-Brazil Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO) met in London.
This in itself tells us something about the global world economy. Whilst of the BRICs Russia’s relations with the UK remain frosty, for complex political reasons, the other three countries in this admittedly artificial bloc are being actively wooed by the Britain and many other countries.
This gives, in part at least, the lie to the repeated claim by those who want Britain to exit it that EU membership precludes the signing of trade deals. In part, because it is of course true that the UK cannot negotiate deals with third parties that would give EU single market access. But that should be good news for Eurosceptics since, were it possible, it would also be possible for any member state to do the same and thereby commit the UK to trade deals it had had no input into.
And these deals also reveal something else. They are predicated in large part upon UK membership of the EU. The Chinese President – in a highly unusual intervention – made it clear during his visit that his country saw trade relations with the UK in terms of the EU, and urged against Brexit. The Indian PM was entirely unambiguous in saying that he saw the UK as India’s “entry point into the EU”.
The Brexiters’ idea that outside the EU there would be a queue of countries lining up to sign preferential trade deals is quite clearly nonsense, as the US have made clear. And any notion that the Commonwealth would be the locus of a new trade bloc is equally preposterous. Australia and Canada have made that clear and the fact that India’s visit to the UK came after visiting 28 other countries speaks volumes. This isn't any longer the world of Imperial Preference.
What did interest both China’s and India’s leaders was something quite different to trading with the UK post-Brexit. Both were concerned about the restrictions put upon visas to visit, work and study in the UK. All these – like the Brexit debate – have got caught up in the British panic about immigration, which is doing real damage, both economic and cultural, to the UK. International students are increasingly turning their backs on British universities as a result. But Brexit also matters to British universities, and this week they came out and said that it would be a catastrophe.
The over-arching debate in all this is not simply about Brexit, it’s about a realistic understanding of what the world is, and the UK’s place within it. These recent events underscore, like it or not, the realpolitik of that place. And it certainly isn't where Brexiters think it to be.