History repeating

Oct 01, 2019
Brian Keegan considers the poignant parallel between Brexit and New Zealand in the 1970s.

"Earthquake? Best thing that ever happened to us.”

This isn’t the best response to the damage done to the city of Christchurch in New Zealand in the wake of the terrible earthquake in 2011. My man had the grace to acknowledge as much after he remembered the appalling loss of life and limb from this particular natural disaster. Nevertheless, as someone who was deeply involved in the New Zealand construction industry, he was all too happy to see the opportunities created by the devastation.

It isn’t the first time that New Zealanders suffered due to powerful circumstances outside their control. While the memories of the 2011 earthquake are clearly fresher, there is also a folk memory among New Zealanders of the economic damage caused to them when the United Kingdom joined the European Union in 1973. For a country largely dependent on agriculture exports to its former Commonwealth headquarters, the British accession to what was then the European Economic Community some 40 years ago was a disaster. The economic disruption of 40 years ago is comparable to the threatened damage from Brexit to the food industry of Ireland – north and south.
In the 1970s, New Zealand’s main exports were butter and lamb. Despite being on the other side of the world, the UK was a key market for these goods and, in fact, accounted for some 30% of New Zealand’s exports. Being members of the Commonwealth, New Zealand had preferential access to UK markets. That access was to be a casualty of Britain’s accession to the EU.

In fact, so great was the problem for New Zealand that London committed to doing what it could to protect New Zealand’s vital interests in the course of negotiating the British accession treaty. The so-called Luxembourg agreement guaranteed limited access for New Zealand produce for a five-year transition period. The idea was to give New Zealand breathing space to negotiate free trade deals with other markets and diversify its export offering, but the economy tanked nevertheless.

If all this sounds familiar, that may be because we are witnessing history repeating itself in a way that would have considerable entertainment value if the issues weren’t quite so serious. Leo Varadkar’s mischievous remark that Westminster should offer pay-per-view wasn’t that far off the mark. We may, however, be watching the wrong channel if we are to learn from this repeat – it’s the New Zealand experience we should focus on.

In the 1970s, New Zealand wine was virtually unobtainable in Europe and kiwi fruits were a rarity. Now they are mainstream. 40 years on, New Zealand’s export destinations are Australia, China, the United States (US) and Japan in order of importance. The country’s volume of trade with the UK has declined by over 60%.

Our Brexit discussions must now move on from brinkmanship and dead-in-a-ditch rhetoric. We are going to have to figure out how to co-exist and trade with our nearest neighbours, culturally and geographically. Business will have to work out how to diversify and establish new markets, and hopefully avoid a repeat of the worst aspects of the 1970s suffered in New Zealand.

I doubt very much that any of us will ever be exclaiming, however thoughtlessly like my earthquake man, that Brexit was the best thing that ever happened to us. That’s because there’s one other point about the New Zealand experience. Even though it was clear for about a decade that the trading relationship with the UK would inevitably change in 1973, the New Zealanders seem to have done precious little about it until the hammer fell.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to deliver change.
Dr Brian Keegan is Director of Advocacy & Voice at Chartered Accountants Ireland.