Update on November 9, 2016
India and the United Kingdom share a vibrant and healthy relationship. Both the countries have historical relations and are best examples of functioning democracies in the contemporary times. The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May is in India. Arriving this Sunday, Theresa May attended the Tech Summit in Bangaluru on November 8 (the last of her three day visit starting on November 6, 2016), to discuss free trade with India and aims to boost relationship with India after Brexit formally happens.
Ahead of her visit it was officially stated by delegate spokesperson, that “We want to look at how we can establish more of dialogue to explore what that relationship would look like so that once we have left the European Union, we will be ready to move as quickly as possible to develop that free-trade relationship”.
Upon arrival Theresa May, announced a ‘bespoke’ fast-track visa service for ‘high net-worth’ Indians and their families. In order to attract investment, and strengthen business ties she also promised quicker border checks for all business travellers from India to Britain. Prime Minister May said “The UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also highlighted the issue of Visa services between India and the UK. He said education will define the future and nature of engagement between India and UK so “We must encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities”.
The people of Great Britain took a historic decision on June 23, 2016. Britain decided to leave the 28-member European Union after being a part of it for more than 40 years.
The referendum came in keeping with David Cameron’s 2015 election promise on the Brexit issue. The result not just shook Britain, but the entire world community. Of course, the difference between ‘in favour’ and ‘against’ was only marginal, with 52 per cent voting ‘in favour’ of ‘leave’ as against 48 per cent voting to ‘remain’(BBC, EU Referendum Results, June 24, 2016).
Led by David Cameron, the ‘remain’ camp included several members of the Conservatives, the opposition Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the pro-European Union Scottish National Party. The ‘remain’ camp was supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Xi Jingping, US President Barack Obama, and many other leaders, including the Indian PM Narendra Modi.
The ‘remain’ camp had felt that being a part of the EU was much more in the interest of United Kingdom (UK), than remaining apart from it. On the contrary, the ‘leave’ camp had the support of Cameron’s Justice Minister Michael Gove, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, half of all the Conservative MPs in the British parliament, Michael Farage of the UK Independence Party. Leader of the right-wing French National Front Marine Le Pen, anti-EU parties in Europe, and the presumptive US presidential nominee Donald Trump. Unlike any other, the issue of Brexit cut across class and lines, age groups, generations, ideologies, communities and even individuals within families.
The Cameron cabinet itself was divided. London Mayor, Sadiq Khan had admitted that even though he may not agree with Cameron , he was with him on the issue of Brexit. As regards David Cameron, he had clearly stated that “despite its faults and frustrations, the United Kingdom was stronger, safer and better off remaining a member of the European Union”. However Cameron offered to step down after the ‘leave’ supporters won the referendum, notwithstanding the tiny 4 per cent margin and announced that the process of leaving the EU would be headed by someone else in the Conservative Party (Government of UK, May 9, 2016).
The ‘leave’ campaigners had argued that EU has changed enormously over the last four decades. With a mammoth, slow-paced bureaucracy, the process of decision-making is too complex. The campaigners felt that Britain was being held back by being a member of the EU with too many rules, standards and procedures regarding business, as also billions of pounds as annual membership fees. In return, they felt, UK was getting nothing (BBC, September 1, 2016). The ‘leave’ camp especially wanted Britain to have full control of its borders, check immigration and cut down on the number of people coming to the UK to live or work. Freedom of movement has been one of the key ideas of the EU. However in the last couple of years, with the increasing pressure of refugees from war-torn regions of Asia and Africa on Europe, there are fears of unbearable stress on public services and consumption of state services. There are also issues of cultural differences and incompatibility that have fuelled xenophobia, right-wing ideas ultimately strengthening the argument in favour of Brexit.
By choosing to leave the EU, Britain has chosen an uncertain path for itself. The decision has already sent the pound tumbling down to its lowest level in the last thirty years, owing to nervousness in markets the world over. With financial markets and economic institutions under stress, the stability of the social fabric and political institutions are in doubt.
Besides, the referendum is bound to encourage right-wing political parties and groups all across Europe and particularly in France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and the Netherlands. There are already voices demanding similar referenda in other countries sceptical of the EU.
The EU has been facing problems owing to the economic recession in the last few years. Moreover, matters aggravated following the refugee crisis since last summer. The member states of the union had major disagreements over acceptance and allocation of refugees from war-torn regions in the Middle East. Divisions between eastern and western European countries further widened over these issues.
The fear of refugees from alien backgrounds swamping Britain was cashed upon by the ‘leave’ campaigners. Xenophobia and hatred were understood to rule the campaign, obfuscating logic and fact.
However, one of the significant lessons to learn from this referendum is that one cannot denounce populist issues and right-wing parties by calling them fascist or racist. The victory of right-wingers cannot simply be termed a consequence of xenophobia and hatred. There is a need for deeper analysis to identify the causes of the failure of the left or centre. According to Dick Pels, a renowned sociologist, “we cannot remain blind to populism’s seductive social dimension: its defence of the traditional welfare state (though for natives only). This welfare chauvinism of ‘our own people/jobs/benefits first’ is disconcertingly close to the social nationalism which is advocated by the radical left.
Pels further adds, “we need to acknowledge more systematically that a new political-cultural divide has opened up at right angles from the traditional socio-economic left-right opposition. This cultural dimension has always been historically active in the form of religious divisions, and was often successfully activated in order to deflect from and dampen class conflict. In a secular age, it focuses on ethnic, national and gender identities and hence on the virulent issues of immigration, integration and European political unification” (Pels, Dick, 2016).
Two weeks after the decision, Theresa May took over as PM to lead the exit process. May is expected to negotiate with the EU and lay down the map for the UK’s relationship with the EU in the future (Telegraph, July 14, 2016 ). She has to decide when it would be appropriate for the British to trigger ‘Article 50’, the official legal mechanism for leaving the EU, which is as yet an untested procedure. For exiting the EU, one of the options available to the UK is to opt for the Norwegian Model and thus have continued access to the EU common market and carry on with economic ties. But this will not allow Britain participate in the decision-making process. Alternatively, it can emulate Switzerland, which although not a member of the EU, has close ties with the EU through a range of agreements. Switzerland is part of the Schengen zone, which allows document-free travel from one European country to another using a Schengen visa. But whatever the UK proposes, it must get the support from the remaining 27 other EU member-states (BBC, September 1, 2016).
Apart from these, another major challenge is to maintain the unity of the UK itself. (The Guardian, July 16, 2016). Although Scotland has already voted overwhelmingly to ‘remain’ in the EU in a referendum, there is renewed demand for independence for Scotland. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already indicated the possibility of a second referendum in the near future (The Daily Mail, June 24, 2016).
The issue of immigrants is a sticky point that ‘leave’ campaigners have rallied upon. Britain has to decide about the future of lakhs of migrants from other EU member-states currently employed in the UK in various sectors of the economy. Freedom of movement is the soul of the EU and was the main issue of contention as well. Theresa May will confront the challenge to evolve strategies to reduce or contain immigration to the UK and the fate of more than a million British citizens employed in other member states of the EU, and vice versa. Apart from these, there are pressing issues pertaining to deficit reduction, negotiating terms and conditions and restructuring trade relations with other countries, stimulating the economy by infusing funds in infrastructure, work on industrial strategy, house-building, renewal of the Trident (nuclear submarine) fleet and corporate reforms (The Guardian, July 16, 2016 ).
After assuming office Theresa May’s immediate focus has naturally been regional. In the last month, she has been making the rounds and holding key talks with various European leaders. These meetings are essentially to boost UK’s international legitimacy and develop a rapport with other leaders before Brexit negotiations start next year (The Observe, August 8, 2016 ). Although initially the new PM had stated that they will take some time to push Brexit, it is reported that Theresa May’s ministers are working ‘full steam ahead’ to complete the process and get Britain out of the European Union (Hawks, 2016). Government officials have claimed that Theresa May was keen to invoke Article 50 before the French and German elections scheduled for 2017. The first round of the French presidential elections is in April and Germany is set to hold its parliamentary elections in the month of September (The Sun, August 20, 2016). Neil Wilson, of currency traders ETX Capital, says,“Invoking Article 50 by April would put pay to speculation that the UK would have several years to prepare to leave the EU. The less time the UK has to get things in order, the greater the market fears the fallout”, The Sun, August 20, 2016.
To conclude, these are uncertain times for the UK. The pound fell by as much as one per cent—its biggest drop in two weeks, when it was announced that Article 50 may be triggered soon. The new PM and cabinet will have to envisage the best possible design to minimise the impact of Brexit and maximise British interests. For now, it is difficult to gauge the long-term impact of Brexit, given the many latent and manifest dimensions to it.
Hawks S. 2016. BREXIT A Step closer: Theresa May could trigger Brexit in 8 months’ time, officials claim. The Sun, published on 20th August 2016. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/ 1642493/theresa-may-could-trigger-brexit-in-8-months-time-officials-claim/. Accessed on 21 August 2016.
Pels D. 2016.What after Brexit? Let us learn from the populists while fighting them. Social Europe, Available at https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/07/brexit-let-us-learn-populists-fighting/.