Will the European Union break up?

Not only Europe and Britain, but the whole world is awaiting with bated breath the outcome of the referendum that will be held on Thursday next June 23 to decide whether Britain will remain in the European Union or will exit from it – hence ‘Brexit’.

Opinion on the issue is divided across several member states of the EU, and of course in Britain too, where the ‘Exit’ and ‘Remain’ constituencies have been making their respective positions heard ever since David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, sent the signal of a possible exit a few months ago. Afterwards he has taken a more nuanced stance, but the call was launched and he had no choice but to go the referendum way. Perhaps as a result of an impassioned plea made by President Obama, when he was on visit to Britain, for the latter to remain in the EU for economic, political and wider cultural reasons. He did underline, though, that whatever would be Britain’s decision eventually, the special relationship that America and Britain share will ever remain.

The ‘remain’ camp in Britain has advanced economic reasons in the main for their preference that Britain should stay in the EU. A micro-trottoir among some small traders on ‘high street’ in London for example, which is heavily frequented by tourists from the EU, showed that they were concerned about the loss of business that would follow if Britain were to leave EU, consequent upon travel restrictions as against freedom of movement that exists now. On the other hand, Britain, as is known, did not change to the euro currency, maintaining the Sterling exchange, and this does not seem to have affected business volume between it and the EU. If it exits, this may be impacted – but which way is uncertain at this stage.

As for the Brexit camp, their latest position has been explicitly and forcefully put across in the tabloid The Sun a few days ago. They have several potent arguments, and the tone is set in the title of the article itself: ‘We must set ourselves free from dictatorial Brussels’. It begins by stating that ‘Throughout our 43-year membership of the European Union it has proved to be increasingly greedy, wasteful, bullying and breathtakingly incompetent in a crisis’. So it advocates a correction of ‘this huge and historic mistake’ through the ballot box, because otherwise it sees a bleak future. They resent what they see as domination by what they consider is a ‘relentlessly expanding German dominated federal state’.

It may be recalled that not only Britain, but some other EU countries, after an initial support strongly criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘open door’ policy that allowed in over a million refugees, expecting that other EU member states would be as liberal. However the incident in Cologne during end of year festivities, when immigrants described as ‘of Arab and North African origin’ sexually assaulted German women, raised a hue and cry as similar incidents were reported in other European capitals. This has dampened the enthusiasm for accommodating more refugees, unfortunately.

And so, it is considered that Britain staying in ‘will be worse for immigration, worse for jobs, worse for wages and worse for our way of lie.’ Examples are cited: of Greece being bankrupt, Italy shortly to go the same way with ‘even more disastrous consequences’, and Spain where 45 per cent of those under 25 are unemployed. However, it is not only fear of being powerless to cut mass immigration – from 1.6 million from the EU to over 8 million in a decade – that propels the exit camp. They reject the ‘apocalyptic predictions’ made the remain camp made up of ‘the corporate establishment, arrogant Europhiles and foreign banks’ about mass unemployment, inflation and so on. They are confident about regaining their sovereignty and freeing themselves from the clutches and constraints of the EU’s ‘foreign bureaucrats’, about their ‘enormous clout as the world’s fifth biggest economy, about their brighter future as a self-governing, powerful nation.

As for Mauritius, during PNQ time in Parliament this week, the Prime Minister has said that he is convinced that he will be able to rely on the long standing and friendly relationship’ and the ‘strong diplomatic ties and trade relationship’ between Mauritius and Great Britain. He pointed out that last year Mauritius exported 52 000 tons of sugar to Britain, Rs 6.6 bn of textile products, Rs 2.8 bn of tuna products, and received nearly 130 000 tourists from Britain. Although there will definitely be an impact on Mauritius should Brexit materialize – as on the rest of the world too – he was confident that the relations between our two countries will survive. He has had some informal exchanges with the private sector, but has not yet set up an interministerial committee under his chairmanship to assess the consequences of an eventual Brexit.

 However, he added that the diversification of the economy by Mauritius had reduced its dependence on Great Britain and Europe in the tourism sector, with the ‘Look East’ policy with the establishment of an Air Corridor between Asia and Africa. Fresh negotiations will have to be carried out between Britain and member states of WTO during the two-year transition period. The PM has invited ‘constructive proposals on the way forward’ from stakeholders.

European countries have been fighting each other for centuries, and even after the establishment of nation states beginning in the 19th century these wars continued, despite alliances amongst their respective royalties. It is only after the two devastating world wars, both of which were triggered by European rivalries emanating from the Austro-Hungarian empire and Germany, that there was a realization of the need for peace so as to recover from the destruction of lives and economies. And the economic move towards what became the EU was made and rolled out. Now it seems that the EU has become stifling and is constraining member states.

Should Brexit take place, it may be a trigger for other countries to get out of EU, effectively leading to its break-up. Whether this will be a domino or a cascade, or a gradual tumble remains to be seen. What is certain is that we as a country must start preparing ourselves for the consequences.

* Published in print edition on 17 June 2016

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