An economically powerful and globally engaged Britain is a force for the good—that has been my clear sense of my adopted homeland for a very long time. Diplomatically, this nation punches far above its weight; its armed forces are among the finest in the world; politically, its system of governance is sophisticated; it is an astounding intellectual and cultural treasure trove.
All of the above is also true of mainland Europe.
Why then would such an obviously gifted nation waste its time, energy and money engaging not with the world, but in an enervating cycle of hot-headed debate on whether or not it should continue to remain in the European Union?
And what does this debate mean for future generations of British men and women, boys and girls—English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish—who will take on the mantle of engaging with the world?
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the 13th India-Europe Summit in Brussels to discuss a planned free trade agreement (FTA) with European bosses, I do wish he had found the time to stop by in London, even if for an hour or two, to have a word with David Cameron about Europe.
To many observers, the Europe-India FTA is dead in the water. There are so many major points of disagreement that while Modi’s presence is needed to breathe life into it, the chances of an agreement anytime soon appear dim.
An understanding on this matter is more important than ever to all three—India, Europe and Britain—because an FTA with Europe will count for little more than a wodge of printed paper if Britain is out of the union.
While academic and common ties are close between India and Britain, there are gaps in mutual understanding. The British get India and the Indians get Britain (though to a lesser extent) and neither really gets Europe. Part of the difficulty lies in getting your head around the very concept of Europe with its political, cultural and economic diversity. But the question of “is there even a Europe?”—the core of euroscepticism—is as pointless as to ask whether India is secular.
Euroscepticism runs deep in Britain, a form of nationalist sentiment that cuts across the Right and the Left, but Modi would have been able to tell Cameron—from experience, perhaps—that pandering to divisive and disintegrative forces for political expediency cannot possibly help a nation prosper. It holds a nation back.
Euroscepticism of the Right is qualitatively different from that of the Left. The Left, for historic reasons, likes Europe more than the Right. The Left’s objections in the current scenario arise chiefly from the effects of uncontrolled immigration. It is perfectly legal for nationals of the 28 EU nations to move about freely within this zone, find work and settle down anywhere they like. Problems arise because of the economic asymmetry of this union, which means a poor immigrant from Greece or eastern Europe will often work for less than an Englishman in England. This drives down wages in general and, in turn, becomes a Left labour or union issue.
The British Right, on the other hand, has a more pugnacious Euroscepticism, deeply suspicious of the motives of the Germans and contemptuous of the French. Their concerns range from immigration to a perceived loss of executive and political control to Brussels, from job losses to sharing the benefits of a splendid welfare state with foreigners.
At the core of Euroscepticism lies a particularly rigid—and morbid—form of English nationalism. The other nationalities of Britain—the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish—are far more “European” than the English.
David Cameron’s gamble quite clearly is that Britons will opt for retaining the status quo—opting for the “known devil”—and that following this, the Tory Right will pipe down for a generation. However, if the margin of victory is razor thin, Eurosceptics such as the United Kingdom Independence Party and half the Tories, and sceptics elsewhere in Europe, will only be emboldened to launch a more vigorous campaign.
India, unlike the British, sees the EU primarily as an economic and trading bloc, not a political organization, and Indian businesses are acutely aware of the potential of instability that a Brexit—British exit—from the EU will spell. “There will be an impact. After all, there are over 800 Indian companies in the UK, the top 10-15 of whom contribute $4 billion to the British economy,” A. Didar Singh, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, told me. “Indian companies see the UK as the springboard to Europe. The language and legal system give Indians a comfort level.”
A study by Morgan Stanley shows that in the worst-case scenario, Europe could take a 1.5% hit to its gross domestic product (GDP) and the UK’s rate of growth could slip to 1% from the current estimate of 2.2% for fiscal 2016.
There is a very strange argument from the right wing of the Tories that a Brexit will benefit India-UK ties in terms of trade, immigration and the well being of the Indian diaspora, but this seems a purely political exercise aimed at getting Indians in the UK to vote for Brexit without offering a shred of evidence.
So, here’s some evidence to show that British Indians are more likely to vote against a Brexit. A recent Chatham House survey found that those who would vote for the UK to leave the EU tend to have left school before their 17th birthday, to have few or no advanced academic qualifications, to be over 55 years old, and to work in less secure, lower-income jobs. In contrast, those who want Britain to remain in the EU tend to be younger, more highly educated, and have more financially secure and professional jobs.
No prizes for guessing where British Indians fall. They won’t vote for Brexit for the same reason they voted for the Tories in the general elections—they are young, highly educated, entrepreneurial and forward-looking.
Which Indians will be most hit? Certainly Indian information technology companies, many of whom are based in the UK with large work forces and offer services to Europe. Large manufacturers such as Tata Motors Ltd, too, will be hit. “They are all worried, all hoping it won’t happen,” says Didar Singh.
If it is the season to hope, then there’s all the more reason for Modi, India and Europe to get cracking on that FTA.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1