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European dream now dead: Brexit is actually about globalisation gone sour

Sure, Brexit is about xenophobia. Sure, Brexit (next Thursday’s referendum on Britain’s exit from the EU) is also about high EU production, trading and conservation standards. At least subliminally, it is about what’s being called 'the refugee crisis'. At heart, though, it goes back to the fact that globalisation has not played out the way it was meant to. And some of those who had bet on the way it was planned are squirming desperately for a way out.

The dream of European unity was born immediately after the Second World War, but formal European Union was born on 1 November, 1993. The World Trade Organisation – also the result of an extended process – was formally born exactly 14 months after the EU.

 European dream now dead: Brexit is actually about globalisation gone sour

Representational image. David Devadas/Firstpost

There were high hopes then among many Europeans. A common market and free movement of labour would turn Western Europe into an economic powerhouse. In the bargain, the process would take care of the large workforces that the recent 'liberation' of Eastern Europe had freed up from state-owned enterprises.

There was even speculation that a united Europe would compete robustly with the US. The 'Asian Tigers' were already impressive in the early '90s but China was not yet viewed as a competitor that was bound to overtake the rest of the world. China’s GDP hovered around 500 billion US dollars in the mid-90s; its graph had just begun to soar upward.

Not only did China expel a tearful Britain from Hong Kong in 1997, it took over the world’s manufacturing. Cheaper labour did migrate northwest from other parts of Europe, but the cost of labour was nowhere near the levels the Chinese state could conjure. As for working conditions and work culture, there was no comparison at all.

Traveling across Europe today, Germany strikes one as exceptional. There is a buoyant confidence about the future, even among people in a relatively poorly-off place like Berlin (Germany’s capital has got used to living off subsidies since the days when it was a tiny island of West Germany, surrounded by East Germany).

There is little confidence in most of the rest of Europe. Indeed, there has been palpable pessimism in places like Slovakia. Young people in much of the south of Europe do not seem to look to the future with any confidence, particularly with regard to the job market. As for social security, even Germans generally have little confidence that the state – or rather, taxes from younger workers – will be able to support them as they age.

Migration nightmare

There is a far more frightening aspect of how globalisation did not pan out the way it was planned. Connectivity was meant to tap into cheap labour, who would remain in their home countries (at call centres, for example) without allowing 'outsiders' physically in to the West. Meanwhile, varying levels of expectation for remuneration were to allow 'market forces' to optimise costs within a united Europe.

Here’s what has happened instead: the migration of 'outsiders' has only increased – and these are not 'guest workers' who were invited in the '50s and '60s with the expectation that they would return 'home' with their nice earnings. Often, new migrants are relatives and other associates of those initial 'guest workers'.

Human smuggling has become a huge illicit business. The tsunami of 'refugees' from devastated parts of Syria and Iraq last year only served to bring home to many Europeans just how much the dreams that accompanied the formation of the EU have soured.

The fact is that the 'Syrian refugee' is just the most visible metaphor of that. Last month, I visited one of Germany’s largest transit camps for those seeking 'refugee' status. It was an eye-opener. I found people there from a slew of countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, Ukraine, Belarus and other countries, apart from Syria and Iraq.

There is amazing openness to 'refugees' in Germany. '(Kein Mensch ist Illegal (No one is illegal),' I saw on a yellow board hung outside a fourth floor window on the busy Alt Moabit road just outside the Turmstrasse metro station in Berlin. And I saw posters saying 'refugees welcome' in Goettingen and Muenster.

Image courtesy: David Devadas

Image courtesy: David Devadas

Of course, these are all university towns. There is no denying that there is resentment too among other Germans. I heard of resentment even among Arabs who settled in Germany some years ago. "My uncle complains that too many are coming in," grinned a 24-year old who was born in Berlin to an earlier generation of refugees (his parents had been born in Lebanon, since his grandparents fled Palestine in 1948).

To be sure, very few 'refugees' have managed to get as far as Britain, compared with the estimated 1.3 million that arrived in Germany last autumn and winter. But fear has made the journey quite easily. And that fear is not just about the recent wave of 'refugees' and other sorts of migrants. There is a haze of fear – about culture, about conservatism, about terrorism, about 'who we are', 'how will we earn', and 'how will we live'.

Underlying those fears is the gnawing sense that globalisation has gone wrong. Far wrong. Globalisation was supposed to make it easy for oil to flow from West Asia, not people. Globalisation was meant to open markets for Western goods, not Europe to Chinese exports – including chic Chinese tourists in superlatively deluxe buses. It was not meant to turn historic towns dotted across Europe into backpackers’ havens.

Brexit is not going to stop any of those trends. But to many, it seems more substantial than grasping at straws.

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Updated Date: Jun 20, 2016 09:54:13 IST