Exit Britain

Brexit has afforded not just the UK another chance, but it can lead to a positive transformation in the world if harnessed properly and effectively

By the time this article is read, the United Kingdom would have exited the European Union. The United Kingdom had entered the European Common Market, known as the ‘European Communities,’ on January 1, 1973, under the Conservative government of Edward Heath. However, in 1975 a referendum was held under the Labour government of Harold Wilson, which had promised a reference to the people on the issue.

Fast-forward forty years, and the customs union and common market was becoming a federal state, with many common organs of state, superseding national institutions. This creeping European state, which was led by bureaucrats in Brussels, riled a number of people in the United Kingdom, resulting in the Conservative government of David Cameron to promise a vote on staying in the European Union. Thus, another direct reference to the people was made in the summer of 2016, where a majority voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

Over the last three years British politics had been messy — to say the least. Averaging an election and a prime minister every two years, these have been one of the most unstable times in the UK in recent memory. But now, at 11pm UK time, on January 31, 2020 the UK has left the European Union after just over forty-seven years of membership. A clear line has been drawn. However, the whole Brexit saga has brought to the fore several important issues and concerns which must be examined, understood and tackled in grave detail and with a lot of dispassion.

First, Brexit has shown that governments cannot thrust their views on the people through the back door, even if they might seemingly be for the ‘greater good’. In a democracy, voters must be given the respect and legitimacy they deserve. Belittling a voter as ‘old,’ ‘misinformed,’ and plain ‘crazy,’ only shows the shallowness of the opposing camp than anything else.

Anywhere in the world, at any time, voters have never been fully informed or even fully ‘rational,’ yet elections happen and democracy keeps trudging along. Voter variance is the beauty (and fun perhaps) of democracy and so it will always remain a part of it. So just like it was fair to ask the people of the UK in 1975 about the European Communities, it was fair to ask them again in 2016 about wanting to remain. Under no definition, the European Communities of 1975 was like the EU of 2016, and so a reference to the people, where several local communities had serious concerns, was essential.

Secondly, Brexit also shows that the European Union, even if a good idea, cannot develop in the current manner. After several countries voted down the European Constitution, it was brought back via the back door of the Lisbon Treaty without reference to the people. The rise of the right wing and populism across the EU is certainly connected to this reality. Right wing Fascism is as dangerous and detrimental to society as is rule by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, with little reference to the people. This is a poignant time for the EU to reflect, and it must not lose this opportunity. Else it will sink deeper.

Thirdly, Brexit gives the United Kingdom a fresh start in international, economic and other affairs — a start seldom afforded to countries short of major wars or catastrophes. Hence, the UK must use this opportunity wisely. The UK had long been a champion of free trade, and so it must use this chance to spearhead free trade across the world. The chance of creating its own economic path in the world is a singular opportunity to develop more inclusive growth across all communities and regions in the country. Brexit happened due to several communities being left behind, and this is a chance to rebuild and support those areas and people.

In the Pakistani context, Brexit provides an opportunity to engage more with the UK. Our history, large diaspora and extensive trade, industry, and other links, connect us deeply. The ‘new UK’ can help us through more trade, interaction and cooperation on several fronts.

In the realm of international affairs, Brexit is a return of the UK to the international stage as a singular player after decades. At a time when the world is again becoming polarised in camps, it is critical for an independent player like the UK to play a stronger part. While the UK has long been aligned with the United States, it does not mean following its lead everywhere. A number of times in the past — most especially in the Iraq debacle, the UK has been led into a disaster by the United States.

Therefore, the UK must use this opportunity to chart is own path in international relations, rather than simply following the US. Without the UK becoming a respected international force after Brexit, a lot of the power it had received back from Brussels will be meaningless.

Fourthly, connected to the above, the UK must use Brexit to refocus on the Commonwealth. Long left by the wayside, mainly due to its membership of the EU, the Commonwealth has just become a very loose club of related countries which only come together every two years in a prime ministers’ conference where there is more chat and less concrete work.

Now free from the EU, the UK must return to reinvigorate the Commonwealth, its natural constituency. After the United Nations, the Commonwealth is the largest network in the world, with nearly a fourth of the world’s population, spread across all inhabited continents. Its members range from tiny countries in the Pacific, to giants like India and Pakistan, from the richest lands in the world to the poorest.

Therefore, there is a lot of opportunity, room for development and the possibility of achieving common goals. The links of history, language, and culture are very strong and the UK must, unashamedly, capitalise on those links for mutual benefit. Lest we forget, it was Commonwealth workers who rebuilt Britain after the Second World War, and there is no reason why the UK should not work with the Commonwealth to make it one of the most dynamic, creative and effective organisations in the world.

Lastly, in our own Pakistani context, Brexit provides an opportunity to engage more with the UK. Our history, large diaspora and extensive trade, industry, and other links, connect us deeply. The ‘new’ UK can help us through more trade, interaction, and cooperation on several fronts.

Once the Commonwealth becomes a more dynamic institution we can also use its connections to not only develop economically and socially, but also use it to solve our long-standing issues with India, and also utilise it to create more regional connectivity through SAARC, where every country is either in the Commonwealth or closely associated with it historically and culturally.

Brexit has afforded not just the UK another chance, but it can lead to a positive transformation in the world if harnessed properly and effectively.

The author is a Research Excellence Fellow at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. He tweets at @BangashYK and his email is: [email protected]com

Brexit: What's next for UK as EU seals the deal