Contemplating no Brexit

As Brexit draws closer, there is growing desperation among the British. The front-page headline in
The Sunday Times
of July 22, “Voters turn to far right, Boris — and Remain”, reflected the state of confusion in people’s minds.

The Brexit process is proving to be emotionally and economically wrenching for the British. The feeling that the country has been tricked into it has given rise to the chorus to let the people once again decide whether Britain should stay in the European Union or not. A second referendum, latest opinion polls indicate, could lead not just to a soft Brexit, but possibly to a dropping of the idea of quitting the EU altogether.

At the heart of Brexit is the tired argument that immigrants are stealing jobs. The ubiquity of migrant workers across the U.K. cannot be missed, while the extent to which they contribute to making the economy stronger is less obvious. A city like London cannot run for a day without them. For instance, the £8 billion sandwich industry, a home-grown mega success, runs mostly on East European labour.

It is turning out to be increasingly hard for the U.K. to contemplate divorce from the rest of Europe. It has been a member of the European Economic Community and later the EU for a greater part of the post-Second World War period. Brexit could also mean the loss of the massive and reliable EU market. Now faced with a whimsical U.S. President, hanging together with the rest of Europe seems to be the most obvious survival option.

At a recent party in Oxford, I met one of those who helped found Oxfam. Now in her nineties, she wistfully recalled how, along with others, she went to Germany in 1946 to help its people cope with the disaster of defeat, vowing that such a conflict should never be allowed to recur, and that the solution lay in Europe pulling together.

This is at the heart of the European integration project, resulting in the emergence of the EU, collectively the world’s largest economy. For Britain to withdraw into an isolationist hole looks too absurd to contemplate but also one that is despairingly difficult to avoid — all for the want of inspiring political leadership and a new political class less committed to the common good than its own.

Not to have quickly integrated politically with strong central controls, as India did after Independence, is the EU’s greatest failure. If a key member like the U.K. should leave, one wonders how long the EU, not yet a state, will last.

By contrast we need to thank Jawaharlal Nehru. With great prescience he successfully cast India as a union — not as a federation — of States with a strong Centre, enabling us to hold together. That is something that should not be lost on those of us rooting for a federal India.

The writer is visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

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