Brexit and ETCA.

Why should you, an average Sri Lankan, pay any attention to Brexit in far off Britain? Think of it as a way to learn how to deal with our ETCA problems.

History Between the European Union and Britain

The official reason for the EU's existence is to create a common market for European nations to freely exchange goods, services and investments, but really what was expected from this post World War union was pacifying growing nationalism in European nations, foster cooperation and prevent a situation which would lead to another world war. In short the EU is there so that Europe exchanges goods and services and not bombs and bullets.

During Margaret Thatcher’s  time, political parties with the specific aim of getting Britain to leave the EU starting appearing in British politics. While in the beginning they did not enjoy much public support, over time by framing every mistake subsequent British governments made, they started to gain political ground. They also started convincing people that EU regulations and laws were eroding British sovereignty.

Leading the charge was the United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP. Unchecked capitalist policies and the slowdown in the global economy brought tough times to the British middle class. UKIP and similar entities blamed this fall in living standards on minorities, immigrants and refugees. They further stated that this happens because of European laws that overrule British sovereignty

UKIP posters for the May22 European parliamentary elections.

It should be mentioned that the referendum was for the entire United Kingdom but unlike Britain the other members of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, voted not to leave the EU.

The ECTA History Between Sri Lanka and India

We do have something similar with ETCA. ETCA first comes to light as CEPA somewhere around 2003. Even that is an agreement that came from developing the old free trade agreement from the 90s. In 2008 the government was ready to sign this but anti-Indian sentiment and problems with the agreement itself made them back off.

Just like Britain doesn’t entirely trust the EU, Sri Lanka doesn’t entirely trust India. I don’t think we have to rehash our issues with India? While India has been a big brother to us in good times and in bad, it’s not like we haven’t gotten a few noogies from them either.

From India getting her hands burnt by sticking them in our war problems, fishing issues, problems with existing trade agreements to us Lankans simply disliking the Indian cricket team, Sri Lanka has butted heads with India.

What reasons did Britain have to leave in this context? Do they apply to Sri Lanka?

No Economic Benefits

Britain joined the EU to join a common market and get the economic rewards. But whether they got those rewards was a question that was asked many times. What Margaret Thatcher spoke about in 88 was how Britain was paying unfair amounts of money to the EU but not receiving appropriate subsidies. These days, Britain being the economic power that she is, the EU relied heavily on Britain. This was not well received by sections of the British public. UKIP claimed that Britain pays the EU 350 million pounds that could otherwise be funding public healthcare. However later the leader of UKIP was forced to accept that this claim was grossly inaccurate.

We have similar sentiments toward India in Sri Lanka. There are those who ask if we’ve had any noticeable success through all our dealings with India all these years. There’s even fears that India’s giant economy will swallow our little one whole. There are also questions whether previous trade agreements with India were drafted in a favourable way to Sri Lanka.

Even if that is the case, the unfortunate reality is that to survive in the present world we have to sign up for this sort of thing. Just like Britain is going to have a hard time not being directly part of the EU market Sri Lanka will find it near impossible to get out of this giant hole of debt she’s in without some trade agreements like ETCA. We need investments from some place that actually has money. To get that we’ll have to sign trade agreements. Just because it’s a trade agreement doesn’t mean it’s bad for Sri Lanka. What’s important is not screwing up the fine print so that it’s bad for us.

Identity and Immigration

A big part of Britain's success is that they were able to attract foreign talent to work for British companies. What made this easy were the EU labour agreements. These also allowed British citizens to work and invest abroad and send back money back home.

Through a well written ETCA agreement, Sri Lanka can enjoy a similar situation. Vacancies should only be filled by someone that can do the job. So if Sri Lankan talent can’t find work here, maybe they’ll be able to find a place in an Indian company. Also if companies can’t find someone suitable in Sri Lanka they can look for Indian talent. This would allow everyone to prosper. While this is already possible through the BOI, a well drafted ETCA would make things much easier.

Going back to Britain, UKIP insisted that EU agreements would allow a flood of foreigners to invade Britain till British workers would lose jobs and Britain’s identity would be diluted. Which is pretty much impossible.

Low quality Indian labour flooding into Sri Lanka is a little hard to believe. While Sri Lanka is gorgeous it really isn’t that different from India in standards of living. In fact our goods and cost of living are often more expensive. So there’s plenty of other places that are higher on the list for Indians to migrate to instead of Sri Lanka. However, fears should be addressed. The working people of Sri Lanka should be informed that preventive measures are being drafted into the agreement. That is very important for Sri Lankan labour.

Notable Individuals Supporting the Leave Movement

Nigel Farage

Three figures gave Britain’s “Leave” movement a big push. First you have UKIP leader Nigel Farage. He was the face of euroscepticism in Britain. He worked for years towards this goal. Secondly you have former London Mayor Boris Johnson. A controversial figure with much comic value and also known to be racist and arrogant. In any case he was able to capture the hearts of the people. Third you have Justice minister Michael Gove. He was the brains of the operation. While Boris Johnson hit the streets, Michael Gove did the interviews and made plans for a post Brexit Britain.

For Sri Lanka, we have the United Professional Movement speaking on the dark side of ETCA. This is made up of the Government Medical Officers’ Association, Sri Lankan Engineers’ Association, Computer Society of Sri Lanka and quite a few other professional associations. Their main aim would be to make sure that Sri Lankans don’t lose out on jobs because of a badly drafted ETCA. They had some discussions with Minister Malik Samarawickrama but they fell through. Their understanding was that while the Indian half of the agreement was very well written the Sri Lankan half needed a LOT more work.

Lack of trust in the government

David Cameron was an embattled minister for quite some time. Both within his party and without. So no matter what promises he gave it didn’t seem to  enough. He gambled his political future on a referendum and being able to control the extremists but he failed miserably at that. He couldn’t even win over enough floating votes.

I don’t have to tell you how much we in Sri Lanka trust politicians. An important thing to note here is that no one has seen a proper draft of the ETCA agreement. No matter which way you look at it, the next step in this fiasco should be the government releasing details of the agreement to the public. Mechanisms of government should be transparent and this is an excellent chance to show that. The best way to sort out many issues surrounding ECTA would be to simply tell the public what’s in it. But we’re still in the dark.

Decision

The British people, in the absence of proper information and understanding, voted themselves out of the EU recently. How this affected the general public was eloquently said on the Financial Times website by political reporter Nicholas Barrett;

"A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly, it was the working classes who voted for us to leave because they were economically disregarded, and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another.

 

Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors.

 

Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said, ‘The British people are sick of experts,’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?"

We have not made a decision on ETCA. To be honest we cannot take a decision on ETCA because unlike the British referendum our politicians have all the say on it. But we shouldn’t keep our eyes closed. With something that can potentially drastically affect our futures we should do what little we can. The people’s input should be included. However at this point the only thing we can do might be to request for details on the agreement. Maybe this is an excellent opportunity to try out that brand new Right to Information Act.

Sri Lanka can reap huge benefits from a properly drafted ETCA. So we can’t just throw it out. Let’s fix it up so it works for us.

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