How is Brexit good for India?

Referendum in Great Britain Rational arguments for a Brexit

Susanne Führer in conversation with Hans Kundnani

Boris Johnson on the "Vote Leave" tour on May 26th, 2016 in London. (imago / i Images)

Almost two weeks before the referendum in Great Britain on remaining in the EU, the outcome of the referendum is completely open. In many surveys, the Brexit supporters are just ahead. The British political scientist Hans Kundnani explains the arguments of the Brexit supporters.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: In twelve days, the British can vote on whether they want to remain a member of the EU or leave. This is the first referendum of its kind in the history of the European Union. What's wrong with the British? Hans Kundnani will explain that to us, hopefully. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. So he's a scientist. He used to be a journalist. And he is a British citizen. Good afternoon, Mr. Kundnani. Nice to have you here.

Hans Kundnani: Hello, thank you for the invitation.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: You currently still live in Germany and took part in the referendum by postal vote. I know that already. May I also ask how you vote.

Hans Kundnani: Yes gladly. I voted to stay.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Why?

Hans Kundnani: Actually, that's a good question. Maybe in the end because I think it's too big a risk for the UK. I do believe that there are arguments why it might be better to quit. In this respect, I am not entirely convinced that the future of Great Britain is better in the EU, but in the end it is a leap into the unknown to quit, so to speak. The risks are very great. And in the end I believe in the European project and I think it will be better if we stay in the EU for the first time.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: So now it's not just intellectual, but also a few - how should one put it - emotional reasons for saying you believe in the European project.

British citizens are of course entitled to vote, but also citizens of Commonwealth countries who live permanently in Great Britain, e.g. Indians or Australians, but not EU citizens, e.g. Germans or Poles who live permanently in Great Britain. I find that a very astonishing rule.

Hans Kundnani: That is interesting and that brings us straight to the history of Great Britain, that special status within Europe that Great Britain has had for a long time. That goes way back in history. It doesn't start with the European Union, it has to do with history.

I can tell that on my own person. My mother is from Holland and my father from India.

"Want more immigrants from India and fewer from Europe"

Deutschlandradio Kultur: So, Hans from mother and Kundnani from father?

Hans Kundnani: Exactly. I was born 72. And back in the 1970s, my father as an Indian citizen had many more rights than my mother as a Dutch citizen. For example, my father could vote in any election and my mother couldn't. It has to do with these relations with the states that were in the British Empire. Until the 1970s, you automatically had the right to obtain British citizenship if you came from a Commonwealth of Nations.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Such traditions, even if the laws have changed, still have an effect. Because we have just talked about intellectual and emotional reasons, I think that there is a little bit of this regulation about who is eligible to vote and who is not, the British still have a greater simple bond with India than they do with the Netherlands.

Hans Kundnani: Exactly. I mean, that comes up in the debate too. Take, for example, the question of immigration, which now really plays almost a decisive role in the referendum. There are people who say we want more immigrants from India and fewer from Europe. That means that they are not necessarily against immigration per se, but that is about this identity of Great Britain, to what extent we belong to Europe, culturally, etc., and to what extent we have a different identity that goes back to the history of Great Britain.

If you were to ask the average British citizen who are we more like, the Europeans, that is, citizens from other EU member states, or Australians, I assume that many would say: Of course, the Australians. There's an interesting difference there too, which is also important, I think.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Because the Europeans eat frog legs like the French and the Australians at least play cricket, right?

Hans Kundnani: You could say that in such an exaggerated way. But the interesting thing, if you really looked at who says I feel more like the Europeans, and whoever says I feel more like the Australians, you would, I claim, see that there is also such a class difference. So that the more educated people feel more European, but the normal British feel similar to the other Anglo-speaking countries. This is also important because, it strengthens this perception that the European Union is an elite project.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: I find what you are saying interesting because, of course, I have heard and read here in Germany that the issue of immigration is one of the main points of contention in this whole Brexit debate. It has to be said again clearly: In Germany, people are discussing refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. And it's not about them at all. It's about EU citizens, many from Eastern Europe, who have come to Great Britain since 2004, the so-called eastward expansion of the EU. I found different numbers. It seems to be around two million, but everyone says they are excellently integrated. They pay more taxes and duties than the average Briton. Well, there are actually no problems with them at all. And of course you think: Aha, if that's the problem, then the British are simply xenophobic overall. - But, as you have just explained, it is not.

Then why is it such a big issue if the immigrants are not a problem at all?

Hans Kundnani: Most importantly, from listening to the UK debate, I mean it is of course true, there are xenophobic overtones in the debate at times. I don't want to question that. But most euro-skeptics say: we are not against immigration. We are against uncontrolled immigration. That is why immigration from the EU plays such an important role in the debate because it is uncontrolled.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Because of the freedom of movement.

Hans Kundnani: Because of freedom of movement, exactly.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: And if you actually perceive them as foreigners, not as Europeans who are going to another European country. But there come the Poles, they are different.

Hans Kundnani: Exactly. That's what I meant by the other point about this perception of cultural differences. But mainly the euro-skeptics say: We are not against immigration per se. We just wanted to be able to decide as a nation state, annually, how many immigrants from which countries come to Great Britain. And we can do that with Indians or with Americans or whatever. The only exception is that every citizen from another EU member state has the right to move to the UK. And what's more, you look what's happening on the European mainland with the euro crisis, with the refugee crisis ...

Eurosceptics bothers immigration from Eastern Europe

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Let’s stay with the first point, Mr Kundnani. If we talk again about the many immigrants from the Eastern European countries, a lot is relative, Great Britain has around 64 million inhabitants and one or two million have come, then that seems a bit absurd against the background that Great Britain is one was the driving force behind admitting these Eastern European states to the EU in 2004. With this very calculation, the more states there are, the less unity and common ground there is, the more it remains an economic community and not a real political union.

Now again to cite that as a reason, well, it is probably not the same Brits who criticize one thing and the other.

Hans Kundnani: Yes. What we are experiencing in the UK in general and not just in Great Britain, if I may say, is a certain backlash against the politics of the last ten or twenty years. In the UK, it's a backlash against a certain policy that has definitely been enforced since Blair. And part of it was this very open attitude towards immigration from Central and Eastern Europe.

So, my impression is that even most euro-skeptics have nothing against the Poles who moved to the UK after 2004. As you said, well, they made a contribution. Economically, that was rather positive for Great Britain. It's not about, it's about that the expectations, that is, as far as numbers are concerned, the expectations that the ...

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Government has stoked, yes, had not been complied with.

Hans Kundnani: ... totally wrong.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Cameron said he's putting it down to 100,000 a year, immigration. And now there were over 300,000 again.

Hans Kundnani: So, a lesson has been learned from it. Firstly, we cannot trust the government or they cannot judge how many are coming to the UK. Even if that wasn't a problem with the Poles in the past, it could be a problem with other countries in the future. That's a bit different than simply saying to all of the Poles that it was a mistake. That's not what it is about.

Hans Kundnani, scientist and author. (imago / Reiner Zensen)
Deutschlandradio Kultur: It is actually interesting that the apparently old political or the usual political schemes that we have do not have much effect when you look at it now: Who is in favor of leaving the EU and who is in favor of staying in the EU ? - So, on the right and left, it doesn't seem to work, based on parties. So David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the Tories, is in favor of staying. But in his own government there are ministers who are in favor of an exit. So, imagine that in Germany - unimaginable: Angela Merkel in a cabinet where there are ministers who are against the EU. And also the Labor Party, which is actually for the EU, there are also celebrities who are in favor of leaving.

Are there lines, can you say, that sort it out, the two camps?

Hans Kundnani: Well, first of all, one would have to say that it was always like that. For example, in the first referendum in 1975, it was just as much that both the Conservatives and the Labor party were basically divided. And back then, the supporters of an exit were such a weird mix of left and right figures - Enoch Powell and Tony Benn ...

Deutschlandradio Kultur: And you can say that this time too?

Hans Kundnani: Yes, actually.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Maybe without weird, but in any case left and right figures are in favor of an exit, by Nigel Farage ...

Hans Kundnani: ... to the extreme left, who basically see the European Union as a neoliberal project.

A liberal-anti-liberal split

Deutschlandradio Kultur: But then they have different reasons, the right and the left. They just come to the same conclusion.

Hans Kundnani: Yes, although I think there are similarities. I come back to this point, this backlash. So, there is a left, right split in British politics, like everywhere else. But from my point of view there is also a liberal-anti-liberal split. And I think you can see that in this debate on Europe. The people who are for Europe are basically liberal, that is, primarily economically liberal, but also to a certain extent socially liberal. And the forces critical of Europe are basically anti-liberal.

Well, I would say that this also applies to Germany. If you look at the left in Germany and the AfD, for example, who are both somewhat eurosceptic or in any case against the European Union as it currently exists, the left would of course say they are for a different Europe, are not eurosceptic in itself, but that could also be what the AfD could claim ...

Deutschlandradio Kultur: They do too.

Hans Kundnani: Yes, we are just for a different Europe. But that's where you see this liberal-anti-liberal split, I think.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: I have read that the majority of anti-Europeans among the British are pale, male and old. That doesn't sound so nice in German, of course, ie "white, old men", which reminded me of the Trump supporters, ie Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate in the USA, where it is also said that they are his largest voter base angry white men, the angry white men.

Hans Kundnani: Exactly. And that's exactly the same. Well, these are the losers from neoliberalism, I would say, or from globalization, you could also say. But these are the people who feel, whether this is right or not, they have not benefited from this policy for the past 25 years.

There are "three majestic circles"

Deutschlandradio Kultur: We have already touched on the point a little, Mr Kundnani, that political decisions are not only made for rational reasons, sometimes even the very least. We have always spoken of these feelings. In Germany there is such a pathos towards Europe, of course from the politicians, but I also have the impression that many people actually share that. Well, there are already many supporters of this European idea in Germany, also among the citizens. And that is of course also due to the fact that the Germans were very eager to let their guilt go up in this international community after National Socialism and the second lost world war. For Germans, the European Union is much more than just an economic community.

Hans Kundnani: Yes.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: And there is such an emotional bond. And I think there are in Great Britain because the story is completely different, it doesn't exist like that.

Hans Kundnani: No. I totally agree. I would just add that in the end, from my point of view, it's not just about history, but ultimately also about geography. It does make a difference that Great Britain is an island in the Atlantic, whereas Germany is and was really in the middle of Europe. That was always so. That means, if you look at German history, for example, even in the bad phases of German history, you have always understood the future of Germany and the role of Germany in this European context, because you just have no other choice when you really are in the Is in the middle of Europe. In this sense, Germany was always European, in a negative and in a positive sense. Sometimes that was a danger to Europe. It was very positive at times.

Britain has a very different history, a very different relationship with Europe, simply because of this different geography. It was always out of the way. That then led, and we can now see that very clearly, that Great Britain has always seen Europe as one option among several. Churchill after the Second World War explains this very nicely, very clearly by saying that there are these three circles, "three majestic circles" he says. Europe is a circle. The United States, this transatlantic world, and then the former Empire, the Commonwealth. And Britain sits in the middle of those three circles. This is how he sees Britain's role in the world, so to speak. And a lot has changed in the meantime, but there is still a bit of this idea that we don't just belong to Europe.

"It's very black and white in Britain"

Deutschlandradio Kultur: We are special. Yes, that is also interesting because the supporters of an exit from the EU, the Brexit supporters, also walk around with banners that read: "We want our country back." Margaret Thatcher just wanted her money back. And they want their country back because they obviously see Brussels as foreign rule.

Hans Kundnani: Yes. And that also has to do with the political system in Great Britain. Well, we just have a different idea of ​​sovereignty than in Germany.And we don't have a federal system like in Germany, where sovereignty is, so to speak, dispersed. So it's very black and white in the UK. The sovereignty sits in parliament.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: And even more black and white thanks to majority voting.

Hans Kundnani: Exactly. And we just have a hard time with this idea that sovereignty is something you share and it's complicated. Then the debate starts immediately: what about democracy then? Who is actually responsible?

Deutschlandradio Kultur: But Europe is also a compromise project. When you are in Brussels and see that, 28 states are struggling to find a solution. And in the UK there is majority voting and one wins.

Hans Kundnani: Exactly. And the benefit of that is, it's very clear who's in charge. The cabinet, the government, is responsible for politics. And we have this kind of fear, and that also applies to coalitions, for example. So, this idea, there are two parties in a coalition and then negotiations are held between them in such a closed circle. And you don't know what will come of it, but you don't know who is responsible for it either. Is it one party to blame or the other? It's just very complicated.

You could say that's politics now. That's the way the world is now. But for the British with a different history, with a different system, we still struggle a little with it.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: I have the impression, that is, from the perspective of Germany, that Mister Europe, that is to say Prime Minister David Cameron, is his main argument in favor of Great Britain remaining in the European Union, that an exit would have dramatic economic consequences. That's so scary. What I am missing is a positive argument, something where they say we stay in Europe because Europe is good for us. But the argument goes like this: Then things will get worse.

Hans Kundnani: Yes that's true.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: That is not very attractive.

Hans Kundnani: And that is exactly the accusation made by the Leavers, that is, by the Eurosceptics. You call it project fear. And it is true that the arguments we make as pro-Europeans are already negative arguments: the alternative is worse.

But my question to you would be: what are these positive arguments for Europe, in the case of Great Britain? I think they are pretty difficult to find, I have to say. It is not that there are a lot of positive arguments that are there that are simply not used, but it is very difficult to make a positive argument at all for Europe, but especially for Great Britain, because, for Great Britain, I have to as a pro-European make the argument: It is better to be on the edge of Europe, so to speak, in this third stage of the European Union. So, there is a core to the eurozone. Then there is a second stage, countries like Poland, the so-called pre-ins, which at some point have to participate in the common currency. And then there is a third level, countries that have an opt-out that do not even participate.

That means, I have to make the argument that it is better to be there in this third stage and to try to pursue our interests from there than to be completely outside. And I'm making that argument, but that's a pretty difficult one, so it's not a particularly convincing argument.

The consequences for the EU are secondary

Deutschlandradio Kultur: You're right. The EU is currently not presenting itself from its most attractive side with the debt crisis, the euro crisis, the high unemployment in southern Europe, and also that one cannot even agree on the distribution of the refugees within the European Union. Well, it's under heavy fire. You could also say that if Britain leaves now, the situation for the European Union will be even more difficult. But that doesn't matter to the Brexit advocates?

Hans Kundnani: It doesn't matter, but of course it's primarily about British interest. What's good for the British? That will be decided by the referendum. What the consequences are for the European Union is of secondary importance.

But I would say that I think it's a bit exaggerated at the moment, this idea: If the British leave, it will be the beginning of the end of the EU. It could happen that other countries - be it the Dutch or the French - then also call for a referendum. But if other such referendums take place and if any other country then votes to step down, it is not because the British did it, but because they are also dissatisfied with the European Union. In other words, if at all, a UK exit is a catalyst, but not the cause of such a dissolution of the European Union.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Well, that would mean that even the discussion about Brexit will lead to Great Britain putting its finger in the wounds of the EU, i.e. revealing the weaknesses again.

Hans Kundnani: Yes that's true. The problems are there. And I mean, it's not like that if the British just didn't exist or didn't have a referendum that the problems weren't there. So, for me, the greatest challenge facing the EU, and the future of Europe will depend on it, is this challenge of the euro crisis and the refugee crisis. And from this the question of whether this core Europe, that is, the countries that participate in the euro area and the Schengen area, whether they can develop a common understanding of solidarity in economic policy, in refugee policy, what rights you have, what responsibility, where you have to show solidarity, where you can expect solidarity. That is the greatest challenge for the EU. And Britain is not participating.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: I was just about to say that. For Great Britain that would be an even bigger deterrent. Because that would amount to further, ever closer cooperation. And that's what the British definitely don't want.

Hans Kundnani: Exactly. And that's why, I mean, I want this core Europe around the euro area and the Schengen area to overcome these challenges. But you are right. It would then lead to Great Britain being further marginalized, so to speak. That is why the question for me is: Even if we will vote in twelve days to stay in the EU, how can membership of Great Britain be made sustainable in the medium term?

Because, I believe, the question will not go away after June 23, also because there will probably not be a large majority in favor of staying, even if we are voting for it. And we saw that in the Scottish referendum. The question doesn't go away. It's not as if on the 24th the British will suddenly love the European Union. The question will remain.

And if you can't find a role for Great Britain in the EU, outside the euro zone, outside Schengen, but still in the EU, then I believe that you will have this debate again and then maybe leave.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: But finding that role would be Britain's job.

Hans Kundnani: Not only.

"There are different ideas about Europe"

Deutschlandradio Kultur: And it has been more like that in recent years, Great Britain has negotiated special regulations for itself on almost every point, that some stumbled out of the negotiating room at three at night and said: God, let them leave! - They have already succeeded in doing that. You really do have a special regulation. Now, of course, everyone is afraid of leaving.

So there are a number of different scenarios for Great Britain. The economy will flourish. The economy will suffer terrible damage. But I do believe that one can be fairly certain that the European Union will be damaged because Britain is simply a big, strong, economically powerful, rich country. And if that is lacking in the European Union, then it will be absent for these reasons alone, apart from this risk of contagion, which you mentioned, that of course the other parties, i.e. in France, Austria, etc., the so-called Eurosceptic parties, So the right-wing, right-wing populist parties will get a boost. There are even surveys from Sweden that a majority of Swedes, should the UK leave, would like to leave. So, the consequences are really not foreseeable.

Hans Kundnani: Yes, but on the other hand one could argue: If the most difficult member state is no longer a member, then one can move forward with integration. And it could solve problems too.

So, I don't think you can argue both. Either there is a risk of contagion, which would mean the British are not such an exception. In other words, the problems the British have with the European Union also have others in the EU. Or they say: The British are an exception because of this island position, etc. But then they say there is no risk of infection. That's a bit of a contradiction in terms, I think.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Well, as you rightly say: the British have won a lot of exemptions. I don't think you can deny that. And on the other hand, there is also a great deal of Euroscepticism within the member states. That is also true, especially with this argument that it would be an elite project. It's still very difficult. Ask any educated person: Can you tell me briefly what is the role of the Council, the Commission and Parliament? I don't think anyone can really answer that offhand. It's a difficult system. And the populist parties, which now do not have the EU first on the agenda, are popular everywhere in Europe.

Hans Kundnani: Yes exactly. For me, the question is the following or the general question that Great Britain is currently raising: To what extent can there be diversity in the European Union? And the British are the best example that you can say no, we have other interests. We therefore want, for example, an opt-out or a special status. And we are of course the most extreme example of this. But there are other countries that say we are not satisfied with everything.

And the question is to what extent this diversity is allowed in the European Union. In particular, to what extent the European Union means you have to participate in the common currency, you have to participate in the Schengen area, you have to participate in all of these projects, or to what extent you say: No, there are different ideas about Europe.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: You don't have to.

Hans Kundnani: I know. But what the example of Great Britain shows is that if you don't take part, the European Union keeps going in directions that then undermine your own interests and you have no influence or less influence because you don't is at the table.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: That's true.

Hans Kundnani: So, I am not judging that, I am simply saying that this is a statement that Great Britain made.

"I honestly don't trust the polls anyway"

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Of course, the UK will have the least influence if you leave.

Hans Kundnani: Yes exactly.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Mr Kundnani, I think the British are so lovable that they bet on everything and of course on the outcome of the referendum. So far, the bookmaker odds still say that the UK will stay in the EU, so the betting odds look like this. - What's your tip?

Hans Kundnani: I can not judge it. The polls are pretty unclear. And to be honest, I don't trust the polls anyway. They were all totally wrong in the last election in 2015. But that's interesting, as you say that the betting makers have completely different expectations. Apparently they are already quite convinced that one chooses to stay. So, if I had to bet, I would say the British will make the more cautious choice, so to speak, of staying in the EU.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: And how much pounds or how many euros would you bet on it?

Hans Kundnani: Not much, one.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Thank you, Mr Kundnani, for talking to us.

Hans Kundnani: Thanks.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Hans Kundnani is Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund still here in Berlin, and soon in Washington. And his book "German Power. The Paradox of German Strength" was recently published by C. H. Beck.

Next week Rudolf Seiters will be our interlocutor in Tacheles, the President of the German Red Cross.