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Brexit: key takeaways for ‘naya’ Nepal

KATHMANDU: The outcome of the historic 23 June referendum backing UK’s exit from the EU – 52% to 48% – has had a seismic and global impact. Its ripple effects have been manifested far and wide, with reactions broadly fluctuating between the untrammeled joy, primordial fear and nagging uncertainty.
Hence, it is expected that experts, historians, politicians, journalists and laypersons around the world will continue for months, if not years, to analyse and prognosticate about every possible dimension of that stunning verdict that took the wind out of the sails of even the most perspicuous of world leaders, not to talk of media pundits.

This column will focus, intentionally and narrowly, on the key takeaways for ‘naya’ Nepal from the latest UK referendum, the third in British history. (The first, held in 1975, was also about membership of what was then called the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU; the second referendum was held in 2014; it rejected independence for Scotland by a 55-45% margin.)
As I see it, perhaps the most important takeaway from the Brexit vote is that despite the fact that there is a thriving parliament in the UK, in modern times Britain has felt the urgency to go directly to the people to ascertain their views/wishes vis-à-vis vital political decisions directly affecting their lives, and that of the nation, in fundamental ways.
Indeed, even as this is being written, there is a petition signed by over 1.5 million calling upon the government to hold a second plebiscite on EU membership, as the decisive vote was less than 60% and the turnout less than 75%. Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU, may also be heading for another referendum; already First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said. “A second (Scottish) independence referendum is clearly an option that requires to be on the table.”
Despite the fact that referenda remain the most democratic means to determine the popular will on crucial, specific policy issues, the champions of ‘naya’ Nepal deliberately – and cynically – refused to go down that hallowed path in determining whether the people indeed desired to do away with the monarchy, Nepal’s Hindu status, and its unitary form of multi-party government. Thus far, the only time a national referendum was conducted was in 1980, during the ‘regressive’ Panchayat regime.
Is it any surprise, therefore, that the consequence of Nepal’s new princelings ramming those far-reaching political changes down the throats of the people – with the so-called ‘international community’ applauding from the sidelines – is that we have a ‘people-written’ constitution but one that has not been accepted by a significant segment of the population!
In short, the Nepali people have been hornswoggled. While a crippling five-month blockade followed in the constitution’s wake, who knows what other delights await us in upholding a basic law that introduced sweeping political changes without first ascertaining the will of the Nepali people?

Another important lesson we ought to learn from Brexit concerns the cardinal issue of borders. Having fairly closely followed the debate that led to the 23 June shocker, there can be little doubt that the widespread perception that Britain’s borders are no longer under her control contributed enormously to the referendum’s striking outcome.
As national borders, since time immemorial, have been synonymous with national sovereignty, it is totally understandable that, for the majority of the British people conscious of their glorious history and distinct geopolitical identity as an island nation separated from the European landmass, EU membership began, over time, to be viewed as obtained at an unacceptably high price.
The seeming loss or gradual erosion of UK’s distinct identity and hoary traditions, and the dread of the adverse impact immigration’s tidal wave on British society appear to have played havoc in the minds of its poorer and less-educated citizens, underlining thereby the power of disaffected voters to force change on a reluctant establishment.
Viewed from a Nepali perspective, what all this adds up to is this: it is simply suicidal for Nepal to continue with the myth that our open border with India – the second largest population on planet earth – is something to be treasured. It should be done away with – the sooner, the better! If not, Nepal will have to face either the Madesh going its separate way or a civil war that will bring in its train unknown, unpredictable consequences.
There is yet another angle – that of national security. With the largest refugee exodus since the Second World War on-going, much of it affecting Europe, set against the backdrop of a splurge of gory terrorist activities across the English Channel, it will hardly be out of order to imagine that national security concern was another factor influencing the Brexit verdict. The ease of travel – within Europe for EU nationals – may have, once upon a time, been viewed as an asset; in the age of radical Islamic terrorism I doubt very
much it is so considered, including in the UK.
In this, too, there are useful geopolitical pointers for Nepal. Given that our open border with India has – according to knowledgeable sources both indigenous as well as extra-regional – morphed into a badlands attracting not merely black-marketers and profiteers but an assortment of terrorists – from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan – as well, it is high time to jettison the outmoded notion that our open border with India is a geopolitical blessing.

Finally, while those disappointed with the Brexit outcome are disparaging the legitimacy of nationalism in politics and international relations by equating it with xenophobia, what the latest British referendum has starkly proven is that nationalism is not a dirty word: any sustained campaign to minimize or sideline it is bound to fail.
Nationalism has remained a most potent force in world politics; clearly it will continue to be so – hopefully, even in ‘naya’ Nepal!

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