Brexit: Things you are not told

By Murari Sharma

British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised an in-out referendum of his country’s membership in the European Union by the end of 2017.  He wants to complete negotiations on reform before calling the vote. He has recently said he hopes the reforms would be agreed by the time of the EU summit next month.

Britain has publicly demanded greater freedom for it to decide policies on economic governance, competitiveness, immigration and sovereignty. However, behind these public demands, there are at least two fundamental psychological reasons, which are not publicly stated.

In economic governance, London does not want to concede more powers to Brussels, to join the euro and to be part of the ever closer union in Europe. It is widely held in Britain that excessive regulation by Brussels has reduced European, particularly British, competitiveness. Britain wants to curtail the EU’s power to regulate. It also wants to exercise greater control over its border, to impose certain restrictions on the welfare payment to new EU migrants and  to give more powers to national parliaments.

The British cabinet, businesses, and people are divided on the issue. The division in the cabinet is so deep that Prime Minister Cameron, who supports remaining in a reformed EU, has allowed his ministers to choose their side without the fear of losing their jobs. For instance, Chancellor Osborne is for staying while Works and Pension Secretary Smith is for leaving. Several other ministers also ‘flirting with’, as Sunday Express characterizes, the idea of leaving.

Although most British businesses seem to support staying in the European Union, a minority of them want it to head to the exit. Essentially, who is supporting and who is opposing boils down to their expected cost and benefit from Britain’s exit from the EU. For example, the financial sector supports continued EU membership to exploit unrestricted Europe-wide market. On the other hand, manufacturers want to see less competition to them from European producers.

Even though the majority of British voters still want to stay put in the union, their number is gradually dwindling. The unabated flow of migrants from the poorer members of the union and Middle Eastern migrants have frightened them. Those who have lost their jobs blame migration for their woes and support Brexit.

However, for security and economic reasons, the international community is united in its call for Britain to remain in the EU. Evidently, the creation of the European Economic Community, the predecessor of EU, had ended the era of incessant wars — from the hundred year war to World War I and II — in Europe. If Britain leaves, others may follow suit, and the union could unravel. Such development may reopen the old animosities and open the chasm for wars.

In the economic sphere, the rest of the world wishes to see the Europe-wide market remain intact, not fragment. Negotiating a single Europe-wide trade deals is both more efficient and more beneficial than individual agreements with 28 EU member states separately. That is why countries like the United States and China have called on Britain to remain within the union.

While these are publicly stated reasons for and against Britain leaving the European union, there are equally important, if not more important, reasons that are seldom mentioned in public: British elite’s complex and British voters’ ignorance.

Some British elites do not appreciate their German counterparts calling most of the shots in the European Union. Although after World War II Britain has become a second tier military and economic power, they have difficulty acknowledging that fact. Rather than playing second fiddle in Europe, they would rather be their own masters.

Ordinary British voters are terribly misinformed. Those who want Britain out of the EU are responsible for such misinformation. They throw raw meat wrapped in jingoism to their voters by suggesting that Brussels bureaucrats are responsible for all Britain’s woes — burgeoning immigration and migration, loss of manufacturing jobs, country’s continued decline. It is only partly true.

Immigration is a two-way street. If EU nationals have relocated in Britain, British nationals have also moved to the Continent. The number on both sides is roughly on par. If Britain imposes restrictions on the free movement of EU nationals, other EU members will institute similar restrictions on British nationals. Therefore, there is no clear advantage to be reaped her by leaving the union.

Because of the free mobility across Europe, most migrants from the Middle East have been coming through Greece and Italy. If Britain leaves the EU, smugglers will begin to reroute their human cargo to British shores. In that case, the migrant problem will be more acute, not less.

Obviously, Britain has been losing manufacturing jobs over time, which makes the victims angry. But protectionism is not the anser to this problem. First, if Britain institutes protectionist measures, others will complain to the World Trade Organization, or worse, will retaliate with similar measures. Second, as long as there are countries where labor is relatively cheap, British producers will relocate their manufacturing to those nations.

Then there is the British identity crisis. Germany is calling the shots in EU because it is the largest economy in the group. America is calling the shots in the world because it is the largest economy and military power. Britain imperial power, built on being the first country where industrial revolution emerged, is not going to be restored again. In a globalized world, it does not have the resources, population, and territory to repeat that glory again.

It does not, however, mean that Brexit could be all bad and no good. Somethings will be better off, somethings would be worse off, and something would remain largely unaffected. The problem is you would not know what the balance sheet of would be like until Brexit has occurred. In other words, Brexit is a gamble. It should better be calculated rather than blind.

The only thing that is certain in this gamble is this: Britain outside the EU would be less significant in the world stage than inside, where it would have the backing of the group. The British voters should keep this in mind when they go to the voting booth some time in 2016 or 2017.

Murari Sharma: Take history in stride

11 January is the birth anniversary of Prithvi Narayan Shah, who unified Nepal through conquest in 1769, seven years before the United States became independent from Britain. There is acrimonious and fierce debate in the country whether his anniversary should be celebrated.

The division is scandalously pronounced and clear. The pro-identity groups vilify Shah, while pro-history groups argue that his contributions should be recognized without overlooking his weaknesses. This has made me ponder over identity and history.

Let me start with the vague generalities: Identity is changeable whereas history is not.

Societies and countries change their identity over time. Take the example of the United States. That landmass was a Red Indian land before the Europeans brutally conquered and colonized it. Most of it became Britain when it was brought under the British empire; after independence, it became the United States in 1776. Louisiana, a French colony, and Alaska, a Russian territory, became part of America through purchase; Hawaii, Texas and California through conquest. The identity of America and its parts have changed accordingly.

Similarly, the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia fragmented and several new countries emerged from them. Similar fragmentations have occurred in Europe and Africa. In South Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh emerged from one country. Such fragmentation has changed their identities as countries and inter-racial and inter-cultural marriages have changed the identities of many people.

But their history, or their origin, cannot be changed, with the change of identities. You may seek to burnish or rewrite your history by selective and distorted use of information, but it would only be a matter of perspective, not of facts.

That however does not mean that I have any quarrel with those who seek their sentimental identity, even though it is extremely difficult to factually establish it. Evidently, it is essential and salutary to understand who you are and how you arrived at the present state, but it should be to inform you about the present and future, not to hitch you back to the past.

As I have already mentioned, the reason for this is simple. Identity develops and changes through permutation and combination. One could be father, son, husband, brother, American and Swiss at the same time. It is difficult to say which identity among the many is more valid and powerful than others, for it is contextual.

But the history is different, factual. There is no uncertainty about your history or origin, for you are either born to someone or not born to someone. You may or may not like your parents, their looks, their behavior, their religion, their culture, their caste or their place of origin, but that does not change the fact that you are their child. You may change the narrative or interpretation about them, but you cannot change the reality.

Countries, as they are, are children of history. Your country’s history is your country’s history, whether you like, dislike, own, or disown it, and history is full of wars, conquests, brutality and blood. All countries in the world have been the products of these violent elements. Show me one country that has not had wars, conquests, brutality and blood in the past.

However, broadly, two types of countries treat their history differently. Those countries that are politically stable and economically prosperous take history in their stride and move on the road to peace and further prosperity. Those nations — where the concept of state is weak, politics is fluid, the economy is backward, and opportunities are limited — waste their time and energy quibbling over the past and jeopardize their present and future prospects.

That brings me to Prithvi Narayan Shah who unified Nepal through war with and conquest of several principalities in the southern slopes of the Himalayan mountains, barring a portion on the other side of the mountains. Wars and conquests have always been brutal and bloody; they are so today, and more so yesterday. Shah’s wars were bloody and brutal as well.

But that does not change the fact, the history, that he unified Nepal, as we know it today. Neither can we run away from the subsequent rulers from the Shah clan, Rana oligarchs or from political parties, who have ruled Nepal.  There is no point in speculating what could have happened if Shah had not unified Nepal, unless you are in the realm of fiction.

So the question is whether you should endeavor unsuccessfully to destroy your history, as al-Qaida and Islamic State extremists have done by bombing and shattering the Bamian Buddha or Palmyra into pieces, as the symbols left behind by the infidels. Or you tap history to your advantage, like the rest of the world has done, to rake in tourist dollars. 

My view is that those who disown history ultimately disown themselves. It may sound too blunt and simplistic, but it is the truth, which is often lost in a number of countries. We can control the present and future, but not the past. Therefore, my suggestion is this: We should take our history in stride, recognize Shah’s contributions, and assess him in a more dispassionate light, as a large majority of normal nations in the world have tried to do.