By Bhaswati Mukherjee*
Is Europe going into reverse gear with the impending divorce from UK? Five centuries ago, King Henry VIII, impatient with the demands of the papacy and refusal to annul his first marriage, broke with Rome and established the Church of England. That step changed Rome forever and established today’s roughly 85 million Anglicans. That was England’s first divorce from Europe and the European empire. This divorce from the European Union (EU) is more complicated.
The origins of English euro-scepticism, it has often been stated, laid in the Protestant Reformation. Historical parallels can sometimes be misleading, but the echoes from the past can resonate in the future. Brexit is, in the ultimate analysis, the rejection of globalisation and the natural opposition of the English to a bigger outside power, in this instance the European Union, the Commission and the Brussels bureaucracy.
Analysts say that “it is also caused by the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug called nostalgia”. Nostalgia for the empire and the past remain the ideological heart of the passionate debate for Britain’s separation from Europe. It is indeed ironical that on the European side too there is little or no recognition of United Kingdom’s past glory. Anglo-French historian Robert Tombs has aptly remarked that when Europeans talk about history, they refer to the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Great Britain is overlooked.
The result of Brexit was like a seismic upheaval. It split the United Kingdom between England and Wales on one hand and Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other. It brought to the forefront the possibility of another Scottish referendum, this time for separation from United Kingdom. It sharply demonstrated the divide between upwardly mobile, well-educated, multicultural English youth who voted to remain, especially in the city of London and the conservative, white, often racist, older and aging sections of English society who equated all of UK’s ills with EU membership.
It sharply impacted the world markets and brought the Pound to a new low. It has brought to an end Prime Minister David Cameron’s political career and now threatens that of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is by no means certain however that Boris Johnson, the leader of Brexit, will become Prime Minister in September. Many point out that in the Conservative Party politics in the UK in the past, those who have successfully wielded the knife against party leadership have not ended up wearing the crown!
The future looks uncertain for the moment. Three million signatures have been obtained demanding a second referendum on UK’s membership, so as to ensure a debate in the House of Commons, after discussion by the House of Commons Petition Select Committee. It calls for UK government to annul the vote if they remain or leave vote is less than 60% from a turnout of less than 75%. Some have pointed out that since the UK is not a participatory democracy like Switzerland, Cameron is not obliged to accept the referendum. The reality is that Cameron staked his Prime Minister-ship on Brexit and has lost the gamble. He had threatened to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty immediately after the result to ensure a two-year countdown to the exit. He has not done so but could be pressured to do so by his peers when he attends the 27 nation EU Summit on Tuesday June 28, 2016.
Nor is the present attitude of the major European capitals encouraging. Reports emanating from Brussels indicate that most European leaders, barring possibly Germany, want to make an example of the British exit, so as to discourage any future trend in this direction. It is highly improbable that any concession on a future trade agreement with the EU will be made until Britain has invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This is to ensure that negotiations on future trade and financial arrangements are made with Britain as a non-member.
Three models now stand available so far as the future of Britain’s economic engagement with the EU is concerned, and these are the EU’s arrangements with Norway or with Canada or with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). A new model seems unlikely. It is certain that France and Belgium will reject any British proposal to remain within the European single market as a non-member unless Britain agrees, as Norway has, that European citizens may continue to live and work in Britain. As the French say, “a divorce is a divorce and there is no appetite to be nice on the day after!”
What has been the impact of the Brexit on India? India currently enjoys a positive trade surplus of around USD 3.64 billion with the UK. The depreciation of the British Pound will affect exporters and importers. India will need to negotiate agreements with EU and Britain separately.
At present, India’s trade with Britain stands at around USD 14 billion, which is more than the rest of Europe put together. Britain’s exit could also mean Britain and EU could compete for trading with India.
It is hoped that the EU will adopt a more flexible approach to complete its negotiations with India to conclude the EU-India Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement. It remains to be seen how Brexit will impact more than 800 Indian companies in UK in crucial sectors of British economy reportedly generating more than 110,000 jobs as well as flows of tourism and business from India to UK. The huge Indian Diaspora, most of who are in the ‘remain’ camp, is also worried about the future.
There is no doubt that Brexit also represent the rise of right wing populism in UK and across Europe. This will influence the agenda for mainstream political parties. It would also weaken the EU and its ability to tackle security issues or the problem of migrants. The impending divorce with Britain, the EU’s second largest economic and military power, will result in divisive debates about the terms and conditions of that separation. It will make Britain inward looking, less prosperous and isolated from Europe. It would ultimately lead to the slow unravelling of the EU leaving both, the EU and Britain weaker, more divided and less capable of addressing the multiple challenges to international peace and security.
*Bhaswati Mukherjee is a former Indian Ambassador. She can be reached at: [email protected]