Illustration of Asia
© Sam Falconer

If Britain turns its back on Europe, it should look to south Asia. Thanks to the growing populations and multi-speed economies in that region, south Asia is likely to show more patience, compared with continental Europe, in dealing with the current political climate in the UK.

Since British people tend to be the least proficient in Europe in foreign languages, leaving them at a potential disadvantage in a competitive multilingual labour market, focusing instead on countries that use English in business and education would open the door towards a brighter future for “global Britain”.

India is the most common country of birth among the foreign-born British population at 9 per cent, while Pakistan is third at 6 per cent and Bangladesh eighth at 2 per cent. These expats could become a cultural and economic bridge after Britain has left the EU. These countries specialise in outsourcing and IT, as well as textiles and agricultural industries. Their economies are complementary, not competitive, to the UK’s. Legal access to jobs in Britain would also boost the development of these countries — there is much to be gained from a two-way exchange.

With the uncertainties resulting from the Brexit vote, the UK has an opportunity to streamline its policies with another region by combining education, development aid, human rights dialogue and trade. In last year’s referendum, British voters showed how unhappy they were with EU workers taking up low-skilled jobs. At the same time, thousands of workers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would be happy with new opportunities to work in the UK.

By turning towards the demographically booming nations in south Asia, the UK could provide workers with simplified, even if temporary, access to its labour market for (for example) five years.

People from these countries often try to reach Europe illegally, by dangerous routes, only to face rejection. The opportunity to work legally in the UK would encourage many to spare themselves the trouble. It does not have to be a one-way flow: British people could find jobs abroad as English teachers, and cultural or business consultants in these countries.

High-skilled workers should benefit from easier access to jobs in the UK, and a framework similar to the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme could be developed for research and scientific co-operation. This could be accompanied by an Erasmus-style academic exchange programme with universities and vocational training schools in south Asia. Such a scheme would build upon the prestige that British universities already have in the region.

By making it easier for south Asian companies to set up in the UK, it has the potential to become a destination for businesses wanting to benefit from preferential trade agreements with the EU, which are likely to be drawn up in some form. With all the new opportunities, the British government should finally dare to tax its businesses appropriately, blocking UK businesses from at least some of Europe’s tax havens (the Netherlands and Luxembourg). It could go on to create a framework where businesses would take responsibility for the larger social and cultural impact created by their quest for ever-cheaper labour.

It seems clear that the UK is leaving the EU. If it wants to make the most of opportunities presented by Brexit, it will require some bold thinking. Looking eastward is a good place to start.

The writer is a policy researcher based in Malta

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