The most interesting aspect of Britain’s referendum on 23rd June on whether it should (B)remain or (Br)exit from the European Union is how it caught everybody by surprise. Those campaigning to leave the EU deep down never really thought they would win and that their exaggerated campaign rhetoric and outright lies would never come back to haunt them: those arguing to remain were so arrogantly cocksure they would win (and thus tame the Eurosceptics for good) they had never entertained a Plan B in case they lost. As the consequences began to sink in the morning after, there werewishful rumblings that the British Parliament (where Bremainers are in the majority) could overturn that vote and go back to merry England of (EU)yore. That was silly legalism: a parliament is only a ‘representative democracy’ whereas a referendum is ‘direct democracy’ which is a rank more legitimate and which is why the new UK prime minister Theresa May, a mild Bremainer, unequivocally declared “Brexit is Brexit” and there would be no second referendum or parliamentary vote.
The ripples of Brexit have been felt worldwide, and even here in Nepal. Because the Pound has fallen to its lowest level in thirty years, and according to the Economist has yet to find a floor, emails from project managers of DfID have started coming in to development partners “requesting all awardees to reduce the budget total by 12.5 percent on the bottom-line and [we] would appreciate any further reduction on your own accord for hedging purposes” by reducing consultant as well as travel time, activities, training and even project duration. There are somber faces from Lalitpur’sKumaripati to Pokhara and Dharan, towns with businesses made lively by British Gurkha pensioners, where household budget devaluation is the dark cloud with no real silver lining.This is not to hide the perverse glee felt in other camps: Nepali Conservatives, angered by the EU and DfID’s blatant promotion of communal ethnic federalism in Nepal since the turn of the century in the name of human rights, have a smug serves-them-right attitude as the Scots and the Irish (and indeed even the Dutch and French right-wingers) mull independence from the UK (or EU).
The short-term costs to the UK will be high, and given that the exit process can drag on for a minimum of two years, that prolonged uncertainty is spooking both short-term investors that dominate today’s global capitalism and the cheap East European labour that has become the mainstay of the service sector (including some 15 percent of UK farm hands and 38 percent of its food processing). According to food policy professor Tim Lang, Britain imports 30 percent of its food and is considered to be only 60 percent self-sufficient if one adds locked-in supply and value chain contributions. Its food laws and regulations are a complex maze of EU’s Common Agriculture Policy built over generations. While overall food has become cheaper over the last half century in EU and the UK, a significant number of households found they did not have the jobs (and the money that would have come with it) to pay even for the cheap food: they were dependent on a fast-growing network of food banks run by charities to make ends meet. These were the majority in rust-belt England and Wales that voted to Brexit.
The British research and academic community is also aghast: just the social scientists alone receive almost a billion pounds of annual EU funding according to the Guardian, and not only that amount but the also the free movement so necessary for scientific collaboration is now in jeopardy. The Guardian also reports that lead UK scientists are being dropped from EU projects as potential future liabilities. Reflecting on the consequences of Brexit, science and technology policy professor Andy Stirling of Sussex argues that even beyond research, the smothering of British ‘democracy’ by the oppressive privilege of built-in, insidious inequalities therein lies behind the ‘surprise’ experienced by its superstructure as the resentment of the mass base bubbled over. There are also serious consequences for other global efforts such as the Paris Climate Deal and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) where the fight for common rules will not see as strong a EuroAmerican front as the Global South has experienced in the past.
The UK vote to leave the EU is the result of anger of voters who felt left out of the European Project, not cold economic calculations; and that anger is a two-way street. While Bremainerswould call it cautionary common sense, the continental Europeans have felt that Britain has played at best an opportunistic role and at worst that of an agent of US policyin the EU. The British have stayed out of the common currency and common Schengen visa arrangements, and they have taken all the benefits of a common market without paying the social and other emotional costs. One hears them ask: “Is Britain an island or a ship? If it is a big island in the North Sea, it is very much a part of Europe. If it is a ship, it should sail away west and become the 51st state of the US!”
There are already global consequences of Brexit. Downplayed by the mainstream media was the news that, after the Thursday 23rd June vote and the shell-shock results on Friday, there was an emergency meeting of EU’s Founding Six in Berlin on Saturday 25th June to take stock of what it meant for their European Project. The ignored remaining 21 of the 28 EU members held a rival meeting in Warsaw on the 30th of June, bringing serious rift to the fore with overtones of the geographical and ideological East-West Schism of the Eleventh Century. There are deep divisions between the two sides on how to deal with both the US and a resurgent Russia and on European integration itself, divisions that will only be exacerbated as a neo-Con Victoria Nuland (“[expletive] the EU!”) finds bigger voice under either a potential Brexit supporting President Trump or an interventionist President Hillary, and as Mr Putin’s diplomats make the cocktail rounds in Hungary, Greece and Portugal among other places to ask how it feels to be second class members that are only good as suppliers of cheap labour.
How were so many on both sides so taken by surprise? One can use a more pluralistic social science (Cultural Theory) to see how the European Project had left out critical voices from the table in a fit of market hubris. In this view, the English masses – who were fatalized by the European Project and marginalized by imported cheap labour, felt even more threatened by a Conservative Osborne budget that would undo the social compact of their state-supported safety net – reacting back at the first chance they had with the referendum vote. One can also go back to that farsighted political economist Karl Polanyi and his seminal 1944 work, The Great Transformation, to understand how the state-market dichotomy is a myth;that society reacts back either through peaceful elections and collective bargaining or through fascism that does away with both laissez-faire and democracy; that free markets are not natural but always imposed by strong states that then design institutions that put not market to the service of society but society to serve the interests of the market, as was done by the Whig-Tories of 17th Century England or the Communist Party of China in the late 20th Century.
Or, to find an alternative answer, one can amble down Krishna Galli to just below the Nepal UN head office in Pulchowk to a small Ayurvedic medicine shop. In its back room you will find Deependra Joshi, a rather young Vedic astrologer from a line of some twenty generations of star-interpreters that have advised Nepali kings of several dynasties, and who is considered by his craft’s peers as “gifted”. He will describe to you what is yugantakariparivartan (i.e., ‘change heralding the end of an age’). According to him, in 2001 the world entered a period of 27 years of rule by a debilitated and malefic Saturn. He reminds you of what happened since then: Royal massacre in Nepal, George Bush’s election, 9/11 and invasion of Afghanistan, Gujrat massacre etc. etc. To make matters worse, since March this year, Saturn is in conjunction with Mars with the two malefics negatively affecting mass politics and violent forces respectively, a trend that will be bad till September but will again be aggravated in 2019. He thinks much restraint and wisdom is required by political and social leaders to survive this period, especially by those commanding parties and militaries who need to exercise self-discipline with strong moral overtones. Otherwise Brexit Blues will be the “new normal”.