Top Ten of 2016 – #8 – Brexit, Free Trade, and the Perils of History

Editor’s Note: In the weeks leading up to the new year, please help us celebrate 2016 at the Imperial & Global Forum by checking out the past year’s 10 most popular posts.

8. Brexit, Free Trade, and the Perils of History

Lord Palmerston Addressing the House of Commons During the Debates on the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty in February 1860, as painted by John Phillip (1863).
Palmerston before the House of Commons amid the Debates on the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty in February 1860. Painting by John Phillip (1863).

Anthony Howe
University of East Anglia

Amid much discussion of alternatives to Britain’s current relationship with Europe, the Canadian, Norwegian, and Swiss models have featured widely. But surprisingly little attention has been paid to the closest historical model of what Brexiteers might hail as ‘a free trade Europe’.[1]

The first version of a ‘common market’ based on free trade treaties was created in Europe in the 1860s. Following the signing of the 1860 Anglo-French (Cobden-Chevalier) commercial treaty, a further 50-60 interlocking trade treaties were negotiated between European states, in effect creating a free trade area, the closest Europe got to a single market before the 1970s.

The economic benefits of this first common market are still contested by economic historians, but, as a model of a loose institutional framework it successfully lowered tariffs between participating states (only Russia of major European states remained outside it).

And at first glance this treaty network appears remarkably similar to the goals of those wishing to avoid a European super state in favour of simpler trade-based relationships. However, the fate of this model should be less than encouraging for the Leave campaign. [continue reading]

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