Andrew Rawnsley Guardian/UK 24 April 2016
Vietnam has its dark side. But it is impossible not to be wowed by the progress it has made over the past three decades, nor impressed by its potential. Poverty has fallen steeply; levels of education and health have risen sharply. Average incomes are many multiples higher than they were. On its current growth trajectory, Vietnam’s economy will soon surpass several European countries. With a population rising above 90 million, it is already the world’s 14th most populous country. That population is very young. More than half of the Vietnamese are under 30. They seemed to this observer to be sparky, hard-working, pragmatic and eager to get on.
This is one of the happening countries of the world and the world is noticing. Barack Obama will be visiting in May. Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, called in on Hanoi in the past fortnight. David Cameron visited last year, the first British prime minister to make the trip.
A Britain that wants to maximise its future prosperity will seek to be part of the future of coming countries such as Vietnam. There is Vietnamese interest in aspects of Britain, particularly a perceived British expertise in insurance, banking, science and technology. But compared with other global actors, we are not that significant in the Vietnamese scheme of things. Certainly not as important as its complex relations with the US and its Asian neighbours, especially the historic enemy and one-time occupier to the north. In so much as the UK matters to a country such as Vietnam, our influence is leveraged through membership of the EU. After three and a half years of negotiation, the EU and Vietnam recently signed a free trade agreement (FTA). When Mr Hammond came visiting, getting the FTA ratified was the main point of the talks from the perspective of his hosts.
That is one of more than 50 agreements with countries on every continent that will be forfeit if Britain quits the EU. Brexit would not only trigger years of horribly complex and acrimonious renegotiation of the terms of trade with our former EU partners – it would also mean starting again with the rest of the world. The Brexiters don’t like to talk about this. When they are forced to address this consequence of self-ejection from the EU, they airily dismiss it, as Michael Gove did in the Panglossian speech he recently delivered on behalf of the Outers.
You do not have to accept every doomsday projection to see that this would impose a steep penalty on growth. The renegotiation of so many trade deals would take time, a punishingly protracted amount of time, time that Britain really cannot afford to waste when the shape of the global economy is changing so rapidly, new players such as Vietnam are jostling for pieces of the action and the rest of the world is organising itself into trading blocs. It is extremely hard to see how Britain could possibly get better terms negotiating on its own rather than as part of a team of 28 nations. It is incredibly easy to see how Britain would get much worse terms.
Those are self-interested reasons for sticking with the EU: we will be better off in. A more altruistic argument was suggested by my journey through Vietnam. The embrace of globalisation by its rulers has not been accompanied by an adoption of a free market in politics. Vietnam is still a one-party state. The Communist party retains a monopoly on power. All the TV stations and newspapers are state-controlled. In the latest index of world press freedom, Vietnam is ranked 175, fifth from bottom. Pro-democracy campaigners are chucked in jail. Monitoring bodies describe the human rights record as “dire”. Publc resentment at corruption is so widespread that Vietnam’s prime minister recently felt obliged to tell the rubber-stamp parliament that he would do something about it.
Can Britain nudge Vietnam towards a more democratic path? Acting alone, we just don’t matter enough to Hanoi to have a chance. As an actor within the EU, there is a better hope. As a price of the free trade agreement, the Vietnamese government had to swallow a commitment to legalising workers’ rights, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. It also signed up to higher environmental standards. Britain within the EU can help to achieve that sort of progress; Britain acting alone cannot. There is strength in numbers. If Vietnam, a country with such a fiercely forged sense of national identity, can grasp that there is no future in trying to hide walled against the world, then it will be mighty perverse if Britain makes the opposite choice.
This is the concluding section of a long article.