Alone, or of Europe

It is of little consequence to India’s foreign policy whatever maybe the façade. Hence, Brexit has attracted so little attention here.
Representational pic
Representational pic

Britain's future hangs in the balance and the times are difficult and contentious. On December 11 its Parliament will vote on the Brexit deal that Prime Minister Theresa May has worked out with the European Union (EU). She faces substantial opposition even though EU leaders have indicated that this is the best Britain could hope for as it exits its uneasy marriage with Europe which began when it joined what was then the European Economic Community (EEC)in 1973. The EEC evolved into the EU in 1992 when its member-states decided, after the cold war ended, to move Europe to a 'closer union' by giving up parts of their sovereignty. Britain has always been reluctant to compromise on this fundamental point.

Let me strike a personal note. I was in college when Britain debated if it should join the  EEC. The syllabus covered some aspects of European history. Our insightful professor told us that Britain was never able to decide if it stands alone or is a part of Europe.  Besides it had always sought that no single continental European power dominated the continent. Thus, it has taken steps to ensure that the balance of power in Europe was restored if one country had upset it.

Both observations are valid today too. The EU mechanisms ensure a European balance of power despite Germany's preponderant weight and without Britain in it and the Brexit referendum showed that Britain was split down the middle on its relationship with the continent. The vote, in June 2016, was only 51.89% in favour of leaving the EU, indicating that Britain's historical dilemma continued. After Parliament approved Brexit on March 29 2017 British Prime Minister Theresa May wrote to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, formally informing him of the decision to leave the EU. She invoked the relevant provisions of the EU charter but, at the same time, sought to emphasise "We are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe—and we want to remain committed to partners and allies and to our friends across the continent". She went to desire a "deep and special partnership". All this is reflective of really wanting to have your cake and eat it too.  

The idea of an integrated Europe began as a customs union and a coal and steel community among some countries. It evolved into a more ambitious plan for a common market. That is the community that Britain joined. Later, especially after the formation of the EU, as the Union's proponents became even more ambitious and looked to common currency and integrated foreign policy and security structures old fears re-surfaced in Britain. It did not give up its own currency which, in traditional thinking, is a basic attribute of sovereignty. As EU rules began to dilute British sovereign economic, migration and even some security related options the groups that were ever wary of the EU came to the fore. In particular, the migration of workers directly hurt the interests of Britain's work force. This led to a demand for referendum on the country's EU membership. This was conceded in 2015 which led to the referendum next year. At that stage most political observers thought that the yes vote would succeed. It did not.

Formal discussions for Brexit lasted a year and a half. Initially Britain wanted to have best of both the worlds—be outside the EU but integrated into those of its structures which were useful to it. EU leaders made it clear that Britain could not cherry pick. More importantly, during the transition period it would have no role in its rules making. It would have to abide by EU decisions. After it has left the EU the balance of power on trade related compliance standards on social and environmental issues will be set by the EU unilaterally and Britain's position would be similar to EU's other trading partners. These are the points that are causing deep distress. It is not surprising for as the world's leading power for over a century and even as its capacities waned in the past five decades it has remained in the international rules making group.

The Brexit deal consists of a binding 585 pages document and a non-binding 26 page political and economic statement which guide further Britain UK ties after Britain exits the EU on 29th March 2019. There will be a transition period till 31st December 2020 which is extendable by mutual consent by at most a couple of years. Popular focus in Britain has been on the protection of UK nationals' rights who are living in the EU, British payments to the EU which have been worked out to 39 billion pounds and the management of the Northern Ireland border with Ireland, which has to be worked out. It will be linked to a full trade deal which is to be decided during the transition period. The fall back on these issues is controversial for EU will have the upper hand in them.

The fact is that Britain is in decline. It is now merely an affluent, advanced country with limited capacity by itself to influence regional, leave alone global events. It seeks to do so through influencing its US partner which often pays it scant attention. All this has impacted on its India relationship. It is of little consequence to India's foreign policy whatever maybe the façade. Hence, Brexit has attracted so little attention here.

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