The Brexit fallout – a return to atavism?

No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. (John Donne: No Man Is An Island)

…it is clear that what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to. (Frantz Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth)

If 2015 was the year of Greece’s struggle to resolve its relationship with the European Union (EU), 2016 saw a far more dramatic battle as the United Kingdom agonised over its tempestuous relationship with the EU. The die has finally been cast with Old Blighty deciding to sever her over four decade old association with the European Union. In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, “It is not an amicable divorce, but it was also not an intimate love affair.” It is time now to dispassionately analyse the political and social forces at work behind the Great Drama of 2016 and what these imply for the directions that societies around the world seem to be taking.

Cynical politics underlay the UK referendum move from 2013 onwards, when the British PM announced it as a poll promise. Once he returned to power, his (and the Conservative Party’s) trousers were firmly nailed to the mast. The opposition Labour Party was in a win-win situation: if Britain voted to quit the EU, early elections were a possibility, given the internal dissensions over the issue in the Conservative Party, and, if the vote favoured remaining in the EU, the Labour Party was still on the winning side. The far-right, xenophobic UK Independence Party saw this as an opportunity to whip up domestic passions on immigration and increase its support base ahead of the next elections.

Meaningless debates took place on the implications of Brexit for the British economy in terms of the impact on trade, employment and growth. Any undergraduate student of economics would be aware of the hazards of an assessment of its probable effects, given that ceteris paribus (other things being equal) is a textbook concept that has almost no relevance to the real world. How human actions will play out over time and what effect they will have on economic parameters can be predicted neither by astrologers nor by economists.

As support veered from one side to the other, it became increasingly clear that the impact of factors like migration on employment opportunities and the composition of social classes were the major issues exercising the minds of the lay public. There was also the question of national sovereignty, of the extent to which the UK was comfortable with an agenda ostensibly set in Brussels. The UK was always a reluctant European partner, as evidenced by her non-participation in the Monetary Union and the Schengen Agreement. Even so, questions were raised in the UK over the abridgement of national sovereignty by the diktats of the European Parliament. There were increasing fears in the UK over what were perceived as European attempts to impose greater integration, with moves towards fuller economic, political and social union.

In the final analysis, the Brexit vote is more a reflection of the hardening attitudes of the traditionally white populations of the UK and Western Europe towards the adverse effects of globalisation, notably loss of jobs and fears of loss of social benefits. The “unwashed millions” from Asia and Africa could be denied entry by stringent immigration controls, which are of no use in an EU dispensation that allows the free movement of EU nationals seeking employment anywhere in the EU. As EU membership spread in an easterly direction, the UK has seen the influx of migrants from more recent EU entrants like Poland, Albania and Romania. Technology has promoted the offshoring of jobs, leading to growing fears in the UK and elsewhere in Europe (as also in the USA) of being “Bangalored”. Imposition of austerity measures also stokes fears of a loss of social security benefits.

What is a cause for more immediate concern is the likely domino effect of Brexit. Far right, Eurosceptic, nationalist movements in France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands already pose serious challenges to the established political order. An exit from the EU of more members could place the future of European unity in serious jeopardy, raising fears of a reversion to a pre-1914 scenario, at the very juncture when the social fabric of Europe is coming under increasing strain. In a rapidly changing international scenario with the rise of huge Asian markets and new centres of production of goods and services, smaller European nations, operating in isolation with a limited resource base and technological skills, could find economic survival an increasingly difficult task.

“Third World” countries have adequate reason to smile wryly at the predicament of the UK and her European neighbours. Pax Britannica, followed by the Cold War era and then Pax Americana, has seen the interests of large segments of the world’s poorer population being at the mercy of the economic and political interests of the world’s powerful nations, essentially from the Western Hemisphere. Apart from overt military intervention (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria being only the prominent recent examples), Western powers have sought to use regional and international platforms (NATO, the UN, IMF, WTO) to promote their narrow economic and political interests, be it the suppression of inconvenient regimes or the negotiation of one-sided treaties on trade, intellectual property rights or the environment. Free movement of goods, services and capital from the West has been promoted, while movement of labour to the West and use of intellectual knowledge in critical areas like generic drug manufacture (which can save innumerable lives) have been sought to be restricted.

Unfortunately, the statements that are emanating from the victorious British politicians on the “Leave” side of the Brexit debate only serve as ominous warnings of their narrow, parochial approach to economic, political and social issues. Trump-etings from the USA in this crucial election year are no better: a campaign against an entire religion, xenophobia against the Hispanic population in the USA and promises to tinker with immigration and trade policies to secure jobs for the local populace. It would seem that influential opinion makers of the Western world are reverting to a tribal, insular worldview, in negation of the plural values that are supposed to have been the basis of Western civilization over the past century and more.

It does not need Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” to remind us of the ferment in many cultures around the globe and their efforts to resist the domination of Western influence and the Western way of life. China is well placed to supplant the USA as the world’s leading economy in the decades to come. India and a host of nations from Asia, Africa and Latin America are looking to find their place in the sun. Brexit will have had a salutary impact if it pushes political leaders in the UK, USA and other European nations to work towards promoting a more equitable and just world economic and political order in consultation with their counterparts from other nations around the globe, as well as striving to achieve greater integration of diverse ethnic and religious groups in their respective countries. The West’s failure to see the writing on the wall will only hasten its eventual decline. The lights may be going out all over Europe once again, with consequences one cannot even begin to imagine!