The real danger of BrexitBy making the European project uncertain, Brexit would impact the world most profoundly at the realm of ideas
On June 23, the British citizens will vote on whether the UK should continue to remain in the European Union or not. As the date closes in, the debate to stay or leave is heating up. Latest polls show that the exit side (Brexit) is gaining strength. This is ringing alarm bells in the British political and business establishment. Warnings of serious consequences are coming not just from British political and business leaders and Britain’s European partners, but also from the US and China.
Historically and geographically, the UK stands out distinct within the European continent. After the Industrial Revolution, the shipbuilding industry and the locomotives gave it immense economic and military power.
Death and destruction experienced during the world wars made countries search for new ideas and institutions to promote collective peace, security and prosperity. Subsequently, the United Nations and the European Economic Community (EEC) were established in 1945 and 1957 respectively.
As one of the key players in the UN, the UK also opted to join the “European Project” in 1961. Reflecting the legacy of history, France vetoed Britain’s application. But in 1973 good sense prevailed and the UK joined the EEC.
With British membership, the European Union started taking on the form of a new model of regional integration. The Island was connected with mainland Europe not just by regular means of trasport and the internet, but also by institutional arrangements consistent with the demands of time and technology.
The British referendum is significant in more than one respect. The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner accounting for 45 percent of its exports and 53 percent of its imports. Since 1973, the UK also has progressively harmonised its economy and society with those of its European partners. Those who want Britain to stay in Europe argue that EU membership has enhanced British influence around the world, and that an exit vote would force it to revisit everything. Of course British exit would also affect the EU and its members.
Many reports suggest that the biggest loser from ‘Brexit’ would be Britain itself. A Chatham House report succinctly explains the consequences for Britain: “If the UK votes to leave the EU, then 2016 becomes year zero for the UK’s relationship with its neighbors in Europe. Exit from the EU also calls into question Britain’s broader role and position within international affairs and in global economy.”
The US President Obama during his visit to the UK some weeks ago also advised the UK to not leave the EU. Former prime ministers, Conservative John Major and Labour’s Tony Blair, decided to stand together to warn that an exit from the EU could even split the UK. About a dozen top British scientists have also signed a petition backing the campaign to remain in the EU.
There is a larger philosophical issue involved in the referendum as well. The Magna Carta, the American, French and Russian revolutions were major epochs in world political development. Many of these game changing events were the result of political-institutional development based on notions of power, sovereignty and the nation-state system as the highest political institution commanding and demanding loyalty and authority.
There are many similarities in what is found in some Hindu scriptures and Western thought and Chanakya and Machiavelli’s ideas. The rise of China and India is also shaking the intellectual foundation on how prosperous and democratic societies are created and sustained. But Western ideas have shaped the current global political, economic and literary developments—so much so that the Westphalian state remains the model of post-colonial state formation and nation building. Unable to think anew and manage the contradictions of ethno-centric politics and a globalising economy, many countries are mired in internal conflicts and state failure.
In this backdrop, the EU’s philosophical foundation of vertical evolution of the state system to supra-national level and horizontal sharing of power and sovereignty not just among the member states but with a large number of non-state actors has been one of the boldest experiments, redefining the traditional exercise of power, sovereignty and transforming the classical state system. With free movement of people, goods and services, transfer of resources from the richer to the poorer areas, emergency support such as the Greek bailout, membership based on norms and rules and respect for human rights and dignity are much needed attempts to transform society in a way consistent with the new global digital age.
With slowing economic growth, high unemployment, refugee and migrant problem posing threats of terror and insecurity, Europe is already under pressure to return to the older mode of exercise of power and sovereignty which lies at the heart of the current global political, economic and security crisis. Tightening partnership with Europe and trans-Atlantic bond have created ambivalence in the US, the UK and Europe. To what extent the “loss of sovereignty” argument of the Brexit side has to do with the new political faultlines appearing in the horizon of contemporary global paradigm flux? This demands a much deeper reflection. The UN, initially established to lead the world in governance for peace, prosperity and security through greater harmonization of individual to national interests, has failed. The EU was starting to show success at the European level. So by making the European project uncertain, it is at the realm of ideas, more than being a case of one among the 29 countries leaving, that Brexit would impact the world most profoundly.
Simkhada, former Nepali Permanent Representative to the UN, is currently a visiting faculty at the department of International Relations and Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University