Brexit And The European Project

13/07/2016 12:42 PM IST | Updated 16/07/2016 1:08 AM IST
In the aftermath of Brexit and the ensuing uncertainty regarding Britain's relationship with the EU and the world at large, I was most discomfited by how many people denounced globalization as a wanton malady laying waste nations and societies. A couple of decades ago, such arguments would have been trashed as a tribal atavism, dismissed as misguided wistfulness for a past that was better abandoned.

The European Affair
This was nowhere truer than in Europe where conflicts and wars were always in the offing. Post industrialization, and with the arrival of railroads, nation-states emerged as the centres of power across Europe. The scramble of European nations for resource and markets -- from the wilderness of Americas to the mystifying cities of the Eastern world -- led to wars, to plunder, to the dubious pursuit of civilizing the uncivilized. It took two world wars for Europe and its polity to realize that any future intra- European conflict could effectively obliterate the entire continent & possibly vast swathes of European colonies in Asia and Africa.
The very nature of the European project meant that the EU had to expand to incorporate the remainder of the European nations such as to become the continent's only "voice".
Post World War II, it was evidently clear that the centre of the world economy had already shifted to the other side of the Atlantic. In the following decades, the US and Japan boasted economies larger than any individual European nation. With European colonies in Asia and Africa fast breaking free of their erstwhile masters, the uncontested writ of nations like Britain, France and Germany was virtually forfeited.

The Seeds Of Unity

Pressed on all fronts, the idea of European integration grew stronger. It was seen as a necessary venture for securing European interests. With Europe as a single economic entity, chances of future conflicts would eventually subside. This would gradually give way to a supra- national organization representing Europe; the political entity giving it tremendous leverage in international fora. As the rule goes, smaller but rich European nations were hard pressed not only by the US and Japan, but also by their fellow European economic giants -- the UK, France and West Germany. This led to the formation of the Benelux Customs Union (BCU) -- a free trade zone with a common tariff on external goods by Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in 1948. Having a common external tariff meant these nations could easily exercise far greater clout internationally. In the decades to follow, a series of European organizations were formed -- the European Coal & Steel Community (ECSC), EURATOM and the European Economic Community (EEC), which was a free trade zone between members with a common tariff on external goods. This was to become the prototype for eventual European Union. Ratified in 1993, it subsumed all these entities and eventually launched a common European currency, the Euro, in 1999.

Testing the European Project

The very nature of the European project meant that the EU had to expand to incorporate the remainder of the European nations such as to become the continent's only "voice". Essaying this commitment in the 1980s, relatively less developed Mediterranean nations -- Greece, Spain and Portugal -- were included in the European Community. This brought to fore one of Europe's greatest predicaments: incorporating less developed nations would ultimately strain well-off members but casting them off meant any such ambitious European project was simply a clique of hegemons. Another important issue was the case of economic parity between members. With the inclusion of these new nations and later the former communist states such as Poland and the Czech Republic, economic parity had to be "hastened" or so thought the cabal of European bureaucrats sitting in Brussels. The decision to enforce strictures of the Economic & Monetary Union (EMU) and a strict control over budget deficit would mean member states needed to cap their welfare expenditures, control inflation and increase taxes. All of these could prove fatal for popular governments, particularly those of Eastern Europe and Mediterranean economies like Greece. The Greek bankruptcy and the ensuing political turmoil of the recent past propelled reactionary political entities to power in Greece.
The result of British referendum fit right into a growing movement towards nationalism, xenophobia and regression towards the hermetically sealed societies of the past.
The global recession of the late 2000s hastened a seemingly insidious process, the rise of reactionary politics across Europe, on either side of the political spectrum. Possibly for the first time since World War II, centrist parties across Europe are losing ground to the far left and right. The narrow defeat of Austria's far-right Freedom Party in the largely ceremonial Presidential election in May, and the Constitutional Court's decision to allow a rerun for the top post in October amid fears of voter fraud certainly bolstered intransigent forces with myopic and parochial solutions to immigration, the refugee crisis and the Euro zone crunch.

The Not So Curious Case Of Brexit

The result of British referendum, although it took many by surprise, fit right into a growing movement towards nationalism, xenophobia and regression towards the hermetically sealed societies of the past. It didn't take much for the likes of UKIP leader Nigel Farage and former London mayor Boris Johnson to sell the idea of a best-of-both-worlds scenario -- a cap on immigration (conveniently forgetting that there are millions of British people residing in the EU too ) and continued access to free market -- thus lazily turning the very principles of globalization upside down.

Confounded and aghast many labelled this as a queer phenomenon but, to reject it as such would invite greater perils in the future. Globalization hasn't actually been egalitarian. There is a large majority across nations that actually feels left out; for them, globalization did little to level the growing disparity between the elites and the working class. The trickle-down never actually materialized, leaving them disgruntled. This whole story of globalization, thus, was little more than an elaborate canard of elites and those charlatans in their payroll at Brussels and London.

The pied pipers like Nigel Farage and their ilk needed only to invoke atavistic abstractions like chauvinism and nationalism to let loose the latent antipathy of the populace against globalization. As the typical demagogues of modern world they chose to jump ship when pressed by harder issues of a post Brexit Britain. Come this November another pied piper on the other side of the Atlantic might attempt something similar, but this time the stakes are higher so are the implications.
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