Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Brexit debate - perspective from an Indian Immigrant

Unless you live in a bunker you would surely have heard of the word Brexit in recent days. I started biased towards OUT camp because in general I prefer decentralisation of power, leaving the sinking ship of EU or at least sending a signal of disapproval. Over days of campaigning (and much before the unfortunate murder of Jo Cox) the Leave campaign got too poisonous and the disapproval is perhaps heard in EU, making me sit on fence again.

Regardless I have had numerous interesting conversations with friends, colleagues and business contacts on this. Inevitably there comes a point where we draw comparison to India's unity in diversity. And so this post will often touch on comparison of India to the EU project. Having watched the passions rise in the BBC debate in Wembley over key campaign issues (Economy, Immigration and UK's place in the world) I want to touch those topics and introduce few more. Skip to the end for spoilers.

Full disclosure: I benefit from strong GBP. I (potentially) benefit from non-EU immigration made at par with EU. I may have less personal stake compared to other voters, in UK's long term future. Completely my own personal views.

Economy: I believe in the concept of a trade union because it brings economic benefits for all. The Indian equivalent is the benefits that GST is likely to bring. This creates winners and losers just because it disrupts status quo and therefore there have been oppositions and holdouts to GST, but it is a fundamentally sound economic idea. Now it will be a hard grueling road for UK to renegotiate a trade deal with EU more so than newly negotiate with other countries. Economic interests aside, EU will try to make an example of UK to keep its union from falling further apart. Arguably EU has more to lose in doing so because it has trade surplus with UK but that cost may be imposed over taxpayers as in past bailouts, keeping the political interests supreme. I think Brexit is worse for EUR than for GBP. It can easily set stage for further disintegration and members have no political capital left after fighting bailouts and forced immigration. UK can't move out of the neighbourhood.

Immigration: The debate around this often reeks of politics Shivsena and MNS in Mumbai. Even being a Marathi-speaking local I cannot endorse the ideas of preferring local Mumbaikars over immigrants. I was born in Mumbai, but my parents were not. Even if they were, our ancestors would not have been at some point. By extension we are all Africans. Where do we draw the line? Further in a globally integrated economy if the local job is not efficient, it WILL move to another place. Now the rhetoric has thankfully toned down to celebrating contribution by immigrants but at a cost of distraction from few other key issues. For example why single out Turkey's possible membership? What about Syrian and Iraqi immigrants whose displacement was caused by wars supported by UK in past? A point based system that you claim allows you to control the sectors of employment is only a patchy solution and creates separate problems in my own experience.

What I find missing in the debate is discussions on political narrow interests, lobbying/bullying by business interests, and political vs economic union. Fair enough that campaigners would never speak about these issues, but at least the electorate should be thinking about them.

Political interests: I cannot believe Boris Johnson want to leave EU because he genuinely feels UK is better off that way, rather than him personally. Most of the UK lawmakers have too much at personal stake to exit and disrupt status quo. Farage is a lunatic. Merkel wants UK to stay not because she feels it is better for UK, but because she then continues to enjoy the clout in EU. I can go on. Perhaps power should be decentralised to keep people close to decisions, only unifying strategic interests such as intelligence, security. But should I give backing to a rabid powergrab attempt?

Business lobbying: EU does not do justice to fair trade by having loopholes that allow Dutch ATRs, Double Irish arrangement and so on. Any reform would be unthinkable in the maze of its bureaucracy. On the other side of the channel UK has its own secret tax havens like BVI, Bermuda and wait for it... City of London. Cameron's renegotiation with EU in fact secured the city's interests. Perhaps bigger political block can stand up to big business better. But it cuts both ways. The bigger the union, the easier it is for big businesses to hoard the lobbying power and crowd out small businesses. It is hard to say what is better in this regard, power centers from business and politics will emerge out of any starting condition. It is down to institutions to keep checks and balances. However the institution on both sides is indeed politics held hostage to narrow business interests.

Union/Sovereignty: How far can an economic union go if there is no political union? Of course there are likes of NAFTA and bilateral trade deals where politics does not integrate, but those are negotiated bespoke. How big a union is too big that it becomes one-size-fits-all and it cannot fit all? Indian comparison here is straightforward in political union - the constitution divides topics between union and states. While the Supreme Court can overrule a state High Court but it will still abide by the constitutional division (legal experts- correct me if this is wrong). Likewise in European case ECJ can overrule UK laws but that's where the analogy stops and becomes a patchwork. The Lisbon Treaty which is equivalent of a common constitution is not fully ratified (and certainly doesn't look to be in near future now). In fact UK has renegotiated that it will not have to integrate politically. So till when can this last? What happens if a trade dispute occurs, UK law & EU law interpret the matters differently and there is no commonly agreed constitution about division of subjects? Fundamentally do the politicians have an incentive to lose their power away to the union? Something has to give.

In conclusion I find the head voting for remaining and heart for leaving. India found its togetherness in fighting the British for independence. That sentiment overruled the differences in languages, cultures across regions (helped by Patel's strong-arming). This was an emotional bond. The European Union started based on rational (economic) principles rather than emotional, perhaps that is why I don't find a sense of European-ness in UK which has been Euroskeptic in general. And that's how BoJo's rhetoric of independence day gets a standing ovation because it generates an emotional response.

I will still sit on the fence for another day. Maybe all this is a non-event. In the long run everyone is dead. Meanwhile I will leave you with these questions.

If you are a Bremainer:
  • Do you really believe you can continue to be economically integrated without a political union? If yes how will you bring democratic accountability in EU?
  • If elites (politicians, big businesses) favour IN, isn't there an argument that common person is better off OUT?
  • If the pressures on social systems can be handled from own budget, what was the parliament doing so far and what will change after IN vote?
If you are a Brexiteer:
  • Can you really fence yourself out of trouble if EU falters or worse, disintegrates? UK itself can disintegrate regardless of EU's fate. Do you have thick enough skin taking such blame?
  • EU is a declining power globally, but so is UK. Can you really take control? Why throw a spanner in the wheel if many things are not that bad?
  • Do you not think Leave campaigners are in a desperate power grab attempt? Won't a Leave vote give legitimacy to fringe elements like UKIP?

No comments: