By Rajashree Ghosh
INDIA New England Columnist
WALTHAM, MA–At gatherings, coffee breaks, farmer’s markets, community events all that made the headliner is “Brexit.” It is with alarm and trepidation that the discussion ensues, groping for some sense, meaning and potentially figuring out how it will impact our day to day lives as it unravels. 30 million people voted and and 52% favored Britain’s exit from the European Union (E.U.).
Why did the United Kingdom leave? What is going to happen to E.U.? A second referendum, maybe? Our 401ks? The questions pile up and there is further re-hashing the news items as they continue to get published and read. As a global event, Britain’s exit from the EU cannot be taken lightly, but it would certainly help if it is deconstructed and presented in ways for us to grasp better what went on. And this is an attempt to do just that.
So let’s begin. We know that the United Kingdom is a global superpower with a diverse economy and global financial hub that is intricately involved in the financial funding of E.U. policies. In the aftermath of the event the pound fell to a historic low, stock markets the world over plunged and the British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation.
Crisis is not new to the E.U. leaders and the debt crisis in Greece, the Eurozone crisis, Ukraine and the migrant crisis have all prepared them for mini-perils of sort. UK sets a precedent by leaving the EU and this is followed by several ramifications that will perhaps be dealt with initially on a short term basis until a larger vision is achieved. Senior Conservatives such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson led the “leave” campaign. They felt that membership to E.U. gave very little in return. Additionally, they wanted Britain to take back control of its borders and reduce the number of people coming to live and work. At best it was a thumbs down to what they saw “United States of Europe” which allowed for free movement between member E.U. countries.
The BBC recorded some quotes following Brexit which tells the tale in so many words, “The fact that fragmentation is no longer unthinkable, should gravely concern us all”: Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. And another one, “The European Union cannot become a hostage to the internal party politics of the [British] Conservatives”: Italian MEP Gianni Pittella.
It has in some ways illustrated the difference between the E.U proponents (of common market and trade association) and the citizens of Europe coming to terms with globalization and the financial crash of 2008. And within the UK, one of the major reasons seem to be to have a more controlled non- porous border which will impact skilled migration to the country. Reports point that Indians living in the UK were varied on whether to “leave” or “remain.” The professionals -say in academics and information technology of Indian origin living in the UK have thus far benefitted from being in UK and access to other countries in the E.U. and thus voted against the idea of Brexit. On the other hand, those in low skilled jobs who have witnessed positions being taken over by migrants from eastern Europe have celebrated leaving the Union.
And then the big businesses like Tata Group located in the UK lose out on the preferential access to E.U. markets and the advantages of import-export tariff barriers that they once enjoyed.
Through it all there are the undercurrents of nationalism that rule roost even where great economic strides are being made. Free trading unions, common markets and profit making hit quite the bump on the road as the loud narratives of nationalism and strong xenophobia take over. Racist messages directed at immigrants are smearing the national consciousness. While the “leave” campaign opted to control the borders it also rendered it insular and exclusive.
Reports suggest that the number of foreign-born people living in the UK has increased from 2.3 million in 1993 (when Britain joined the EU) to 8.2 million in 2014. The surge was a result (in part but not in whole) of EU rules allowing citizens of EU countries to move and work freely in any other EU member country. Zack Beauchamp (Vox World) states that British believed there were “too many immigrants” even when there were too few to have appreciable effects on the British economy. Support for staying in the EU was concentrated among the UK’s young, whose wages were hurt most by the 2008 recession. Support for leave was concentrated among older Britons, who had less reason to fear wage competition from immigrants. Beauchamp points to the on the ground fear mongering unleashed by campaigners is detrimental to the whole process. And that as a nation UK needs to consolidate its laws and make the case for the humanitarian right to migrate.
Well, the E.U is changing as is the rest of the world. Further referendums and polls aside, it probably is wise to roll up our sleeves and cuffs and brace for what is to come. The transition will hopefully be peaceful and impending changes for us are not as volatile. Maybe it is a domestic issue for UK and we wait for the economic partner of the US to put its house in order. But that does not stop the several questions and they should keep coming.
(Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.)