By Jerome Cooray and Alice Oates
“They may take our tea and toast
but they will never take our freedom”
The delaying of EU plans to regulate (and possibly ban) use of inefficient and high-powered kettles and toasters has been attributed to a desire in Brussels to avoid alienating the British public, with our well-known enjoyment of cups of tea and plates of toast. The issue has been reported on extensively due to some interesting responses from ‘Brexiters’ such as: “They may take our tea and toast but they will never take our freedom” (Brian Monteith, cited in The Telegraph) and David Coburn’s assertion that EU-regulated toasters make toast that looks “like it’s been cooked in the Antarctic on an ice float” (talking to Buzzfeed).
The importance of well-made breakfast foods aside, it’s a serious issue. Tea has long been accepted as part of British identity. With referendum campaigns in full swing it may be emotive topics like the good British cuppa that persuade some voters as to whether being part of the EU is in their best interests. Moreover, the majority of British households contain a kettle and toaster. Regulating these appliances to ensure safety and efficiency is part of an EU strategy to improve sustainability and save consumers money by encouraging producers to make more durable and recyclable products – not a breakfast-ruining campaign.
Tea matters in other ways as well. Before one can start worrying about kettle politics there comes the question of where tea comes from, and how exiting the EU might affect global trade, including tea. It has been pointed out that negotiating trade deals with the EU, or between non-EU states, takes time. HM Government’s policy document on the Process for Withdrawing from the European Union asserts that the process of negotiating the UK’s position and trade agreements outside the EU “could lead to up to a decade or more of uncertainty”. A British exit could also have repercussions for the future of the EU, and trade patterns with other EU states. To illustrate this we turn to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s relationship with the UK began in 1796 when the Maritime Provinces of Ceylon came under the control of the English East India Company. By the beginning of the 20th century, the British administration had successfully transformed the island from subsistence agriculture into an economy based on commercial agriculture with tea, rubber, coconut and cinnamon topping the list of commercial crops. In 1867 James Taylor, a British entrepreneur, launched Sri Lanka’s first tea plantation. When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 it was already famous for its Ceylon Tea. Today, Sri Lanka is the world’s co-largest tea exporter (the other is Kenya; and both are Commonwealth Nations) and the fourth largest tea producer.
Since its independence Sri Lanka has maintained a cordial political-economic relationship with the UK, becoming a Republic within the Commonwealth of Nations in 1972. Commonwealth members are closely observing UK-EU relations; for Sri Lanka a British vote to stay is considered preferable. While it’s been argued that Brexit lets Britain have its tea and drink it too if we strengthen ties with the Commonwealth, there’s unlikely to be long term benefits for Commonwealth members like Sri Lanka or Kenya.
While no single EU country is a major Ceylon tea importer, 36% of Sri Lanka’s exports reach EU markets, making it Sri Lanka’s largest export destination when taken as a whole. Black tea and apparel are the majority of these exports; 11% of these exports reach the UK. Sri Lanka is one of the major beneficiaries of the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) offered by the EU, which means Sri Lanka has trade access to 28 European countries without additional tariffs. This is a huge boost for the Ceylon Tea industry. A strong EU provides tea producers such as Sri Lanka and Kenya with access to European consumers with few economic barriers. Losing this access to the UK market will probably have negligible impact, but from a long-term perspective there might be reasons for concern. No country has ever left the EU, and a British exit could signal deepening problems for the EU that threaten trade relations beyond the UK.
Moreover, this argument heavily implies that the UK values international organisations for purely economic reasons. ‘Brexiter’ Daniel Hannan (Conservative MEP) painted this picture when he wrote; “When we joined the EEC on 1 January 1973, it seemed that Europe was the future […] the economy of the Commonwealth overtook that of the Eurozone in 2013, and is set to overtake that of the EU as a whole by 2018.” Such statements foreclose discussion as to whether Britain’s changing global allegiances benefit the Commonwealth, and suggest the reverse statement could be true as well: a stronger EU in future could mean the UK would once again favour Europe over the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth and EU are not just economic platforms for the UK; they are political commitments, the upholding of which has implications for the states and people involved. Tea and toast may be close to British hearts, but behind every cup of tea is years of history and trade that should be taken into account when we talk about Brexit, trade, and the Commonwealth.
Jerome Cooray and Alice Oates are students on the RHUL Geopolitics & Security MSc.