The mood of the participants at a panel discussion that the CJA hosted in New Delhi on July 16, 2016 on Brexit – the outcome of the British referendum to quit the European Union (EU) – and what it means to the Commonwealth, can be summed up in one word: dismay.
The CJA sought to have a mixed panel of Indian experts and the foreign representatives, the latter, at least for a listen-in. This brought representatives from the UK, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh with participation by a scholar from Trinidad and Tobago who presented a Caribbean viewpoint on Brexit.
Ambassador Sudhir Devare, formerly Secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, chaired the discussion. Ambassador Nalin Surie, currently Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs and a former Indian High Commission to the UK, Dr Charan D. Wadhva, Professor Emeritus, Council for Policy Research (CPR), journalist L K Sharma, who reported from London for long years for The Times of India and Dr Sanjay Badri-Maharaj from Trinidad were on the panel. Brief interventions came from the veteran Surendra Nihal Singh and Vijay Naik, Vice President CJA, India Chapter.
CJA President Mahendra Ved introduced the subject, emphasizing that while larger Commonwealth entities may not, the smaller, far-flung members were looking up to Britain for help.
Devare said the Brexit had called into question the role of regional groupings with regard to the extent members could submerge their identity, opt for common laws and currency. EU was considered a strong entity, but could suffer erosion and more conflict with its members. For instance, how will EU deal with its differences with Russia, he asked.
Some of the general observations were: Britain and the EU would survive the separation, but both would suffer. Some more countries could want to quit the EU. Much as Scotland may want to remain in the EU, it cannot, which would strain English-Scotch relations. In contrast to the self-inflicted turmoil of the Britons, Germany, under mature leadership of Angela Merkel, is showing all the signs of emerging as the most influential European nation. The Downturn that began in 2007-08, showing no sign of ebbing, could make things worse for Europe. The implications of the ‘divorce’ would be all-round – political, economic, strategic and social and they would impact Europe and its relations with the rest of the world.
Speaking in his personal capacity and not as DG, ICWA, Surie was confident that although the British decision seemed difficult to reverse at the present juncture, “if the British were to seek a reversal of the Brexit, the EU would give it.” Also, since the UK does not have a written constitution, the referendum is not legally binding.
What is there in this for the Commonwealth nations? They were not consulted or even kept informed. The smaller and far-flung CW members are dismayed and do not know if the British would continue to help their many projects.
Wadhva said although Commonwealth cannot be a substitute to the EU, Britain can salvage some of the losses if It tries to carry the CW, especially the developed economies in the grouping like Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa and India. However, Nihal Singh did not see a role for the CW and Naik said Britain needs CW more than the CW needs the British.
Sharma who had covered many British elections, saw ‘tropicalisation’ of the last election and the Brexit campaign. Level of the British discourse has dipped with calumny and character assassination, which is “un-British”. The entire Brexit campaign was conducted without a serious study of what the UK-EU relationship was and the impolications of separation. They were like “college debate” without realizing the implications.
Badri-Maharaj spoke of the Carribean islands not looking forward to any British leadership of a CW initiative in trade and that the islands would continue with their current trade pact with EU. He also pointed out that the islands were confused about British motivations as the former colonial power ha d not as yet come forward offering any trade deal, post-Brexit.
Some panelists felt the Brexit has a strong domestic element. The inner fight of the Conservative Party has dictated a national verdict with global implications. A serious political miscalculation by former Prime Minister David Cameron brought out the simmering discontent among the parliamentary backbenchers.
Britons outside of the City of London expressed their dissatisfaction at being marginalized by voting to quit EU that they feel has held Britain down. There is a mix of Imperial nostalgia and the fear of being swamped by the immigrants and the refugees who are seen as “taking away” jobs. The older, 55-plus Britons voted for separation. These are issues that, whether or not they are resolved by Brexit, are not going to easily go away.
What is there for India? Surie pointed out that new prime minister May as the Home Secretary had worked to deny Indians the visas. Her choice of the Foreign Secretary would make it difficult for her to deal with India and with the rest of the world.
Contrary to perceptions, the Indian investment in Britain was USD nine billion “some of it in trouble”, while it is USD 39 billion in the EU. Despite old and emotional ties, India could choose other ‘friendly’ European cities as gateways if the British do not help.