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|The decision to leave the EU has created much debate between British citizens (Photo: AFP)|
Boris Johnson has consolidated his position as Prime Minister in Britain’s first December general election for nearly a century, which paved the way for him to pass his Brexit deal last week, ensuring the UK leaves the EU in 2020.
After two previous false starts to ratify a deal in parliament, PM Johnson said that the time for further dithering was over. “We will get Brexit done on time on January 31 – no ifs, no buts, no maybes,” he insisted.
Despite warnings from senior EU figures such as Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to the contrary, Johnson believes the UK can have a new trade deal in place with the EU in a year or less, although it may initially be somewhat of a bare bones agreement. “It is unrealistic that a global negotiation can be carried out in 11 months, so we can’t do it all. We will do all we can to get the vital minimum to establish a relationship with the UK if that is the time scale,” Barnier explained.
Since 1973 the UK had taken part in the European project through a continent-wide regulatory alliance covering diplomacy, monetary policy, human rights, and more besides. The bloc has nearly 40 free trade agreements (FTAs)with countries and territories around the globe, along with nearly a dozen provisional deals with groups of nations located mainly in Africa and Central America. Vietnam, meanwhile, has a signed deal with the EU, with the EU-Vietnam FTA set to come into force next year.
With the UK deciding it wants to create its own trade agreements, other countries are already looking to the future and the potential that lies ahead for a clean slate with British trade. US president Donald Trump said that “a massive trade deal” could be in the works after Brexit is made official, while Canada is taking a wait-and-see approach in terms of the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the EU and the transitional timetable involved.
To ease the transition out of such a major bloc – whose trade deals make up around 11 per cent of total UK trade – the Brits have been negotiating new agreements with a number of countries that will take effect, pending the exact details of Brexit. It has already signed 15 agreements covering 46 countries and, according to the UK government’s official website, further engagements are ongoing with a slew of other nations or territories.
In September, UK Ambassador to Vietnam Gareth Ward, said the country aims to set up a new-generation FTA with Vietnam once Brexit is concluded. “I believe the UK-Vietnam relationship will continue to grow strongly even after the UK leaves the EU. This will even be more important when Vietnam chairs the ASEAN and joins the UN Security Council next year,” Ward said.
Seeking new pastures
The see-saw situation of the Brexit negotiations over the last few years has affected the plans of Brits based abroad, including those living and working in Vietnam. With exit from the EU meaning wide-scale changes in visa regulations, citizenship, free movement, and more, many expats have been left in the lurch as the process of withdrawal drags on.
Today over five million Brits – those born in England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland – currently live abroad, with net migration standing at 258,000 people in 2018. While most prefer to emigrate to English-speaking nations such as Australia or Canada, or to sunnier climes like Spain only a short flight away, Southeast Asia is increasingly on the radar of those who believe the Brexit situation may dampen their personal or professional prospects, at least in its uncertain initial stages.
Steve Jackson, a long-term British expat and communications manager for an NGO said, “I keep telling young people to spend a year in Vietnam. Teach, take photos, write, volunteer for a charity – it’s an incredible opportunity. It’s a much better option than having to do an internship for a couple of years while relying on parents or loans to fund it. It can be the greatest time of your life – I arrived initially as a charity volunteer and never stopped smiling. I felt so lucky.”
Amber Jay, an academic instructor from Eastbourne in England, has spent the last three years in Vietnam. “Back home I was essentially living on the breadline. As a young person in my 20s, even though I had both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, I found it very difficult finding a job that would pay enough to allow me to save money. Since moving to Vietnam, I have been able to save but can afford to live well too.”
Only now does Jay feel confident enough that she can return to England and perhaps settle down for good. “I’ve decided to move back to the UK, mainly to be closer to my family, but also because my partner and I are hoping to start a family of our own and we want to establish ourselves professionally and financially in the UK beforehand.”
Jackson, however, does not feel like the correct conditions will occur for him personally any time soon. “Much of the work for people like me is in London. However, for over a decade wages have stagnated and rents have continued to rise. Even employed I couldn’t live there, and frankly I’d rather live in Vietnam. I no longer understand how people can afford to live in the UK.”
The vital issues of wages and rent prices are not the only ones concerning those who have spent time living abroad – emotional wellbeing also comes into the equation for many, in terms of day-to-day living.
Satbinder Deshi was a teacher in Leicester before moving to Hanoi. “Most likely, I will not move back to the UK. I visited for two months in the summer, and noticed how different I was in terms of personal growth. The work-life balance was nonexistent. It was stressful and demanding, whereas in Vietnam I find teaching more of a joy, to actually deliver my courses to kids who love them and thrive on them.”
Offering new options
While Vietnam continues to entice its fair share of Brits, these same people are not shy in explaining the downsides of leaving the UK, despite the Brexit uncertainties. “Another huge reason for my move home which I think is equally important is the pollution,” said Jay from Eastbourne. “After three years in Hanoi I’m worried about the physical or mental damage that living amongst such toxic levels of pollution, compared to the UK, is going to do.”
Jackson also expressed his concern. “Climate change and the air quality absolutely terrify me. I hope we never have to leave but it’s hard to imagine turning around the environmental damage right now.”
While the country has much more to do in order to attract foreigners and retain them, on her return home Jay insisted she will encourage people to think about living and working in Vietnam. “I would recommend Vietnam to others, 100 per cent. It’s a fantastic place to live and work and an amazing experience for anyone to live in such a beautiful place. It has such a rich and wonderful culture that is so different from our own. It also allows young people to experience a work culture that is not as gruelling compared to what they might experience at home.”
The new-found clarity of the Brexit path since the 2016 decision to leave the EU has inevitably opened up different concerns for the island of Great Britain. With two of the four nations comprising the UK being removed from the EU despite their decision in 2016 to remain in the bloc, there have been renewed calls in Scotland to leave the UK altogether – something which was rejected, albeit narrowly, five years ago.
As a country rich in diverse cultures, traditions, and ambitions, the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England is facing its toughest struggle yet to unite its people on the same journey, but Brits would be at pains to note that facing adversity is when the UK always fares its best.
“It’s going to take a while but currently, the gap between rich and poor in the UK is too big and so citizens are finding it harder to connect with one another,” said Deshi. “This leads to some not willing to embrace and help everyone in the country, which has always been an issue there simply due to the nature of its history. But I have faith in anyone who is willing to change, and I have faith that the people will make the best of it and make it a success.”
Jay also wants to see the positive side of the upheaval. “Perhaps there will be another few years of unrest in trying to get Brexit through and make it work. But no matter what, life in the UK will go on and British people will continue doing their jobs, trying to make money for themselves and their family, and trying to make the best of whatever emerges from these huge changes.”
While some feel that leaving the EU is an inward-looking move, others want to show that the UK is still an outward-looking nation simply seeking to co-operate and integrate globally on its own terms.
As for Vietnam, its huge population, growing desire to integrate, sustained success with FTAs, and political stability mean that it and neighbouring nations could find themselves with more access to much-lauded British products as well as an influx of its people, looking to make their mark on the world.