NEWSWATCH by Ashis Ray focus on EU referendum; US policy on Pakistan and India’s relations with immediate neighbours
The jury is out on whether British Prime Minister David Cameron was astute to offer a referendum on the European Union in his Conservative party’s election manifesto last year. Britons will vote to remain in or leave the 28 nation consortium on 23 June.
Cameron, perhaps unnerved by the rise of the ultra-nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and hassled by the right-wing in his own party, was bounced into pledging a plebiscite. UKIP had eaten into the Tory vote on the issue of immigration from Eastern Europe – which has been blamed for unemployment among locals and stress on the education, health and housing sectors, while Eurosceptics in his party continue to suffer from a little England syndrome.
There was no irresistible public demand for a referendum and no constitutional compulsion to hold one. Besides, the challenge from UKIP had weakened.
The jury is out because the “in-out” campaign has given rise to bitter bloodletting within the Conservative party. Not only have cabinet ministers been at each other’s throats, but even the prime minister has not been spared vitriolic attacks by his leave colleagues!
Even since Britain joined the EU – then known as the European Economic Community – in 1973, Tory Europhobes and Europhiles have differed sharply on the amalgamation, with their MPs are split down the middle.
The International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England and a majority of business chambers and think-tanks have warned that a departure would painful for the UK economy for an extended period before any benefits accrue. The EU is by far Britain’s biggest trading partner and a free market. It’s madness to even contemplate a departure from such a beneficial arrangement. UK Goods and services would immediately become more expensive in the EU and vice versa in the event of an exit.
Brexiteers’ are agitated about sovereignty. This has, of course, been conceded to a certain extent by all EU member countries, but in exchange for the colossal advantages in innumerable sectors. They also conjure a fanciful dream of a fast-track free trade agreement with India.
Britain outside the EU, notwithstanding its permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, would become a much diminished power.
However, after seeing off the Scottish separatist threat and securing an absolute majority in last year’s general election, victory after gambling with a EU referendum would constitute a hat-trick that could crown Cameron as one of Britain’s best prime ministers ever. Some reckon, though, that regardless of the result, Conservatives would be left in a destructive state of vengeance within.
US impatience with Pakistan
Afghanistan authorities believe the first Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, died in a hospital in Karachi; Pakistanis claim he breathed his last in Afghanistan. But there is no dispute over his successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour meeting his end inside Pakistan in an American drone attack. Besides, he was travelling in a car in Baluchistan under a pseudonym holding a Pakistani passport.
For years the Pakistani government strenuously denied the presence of the Afghan Taliban leadership on its territory. So it is deeply embarrassing for it to be caught harbouring the head of an infamous terrorist organisation, which is also hand-in-glove with the murderous Haqqani network.
Enhanced activities of the Taliban-Haqqani nexus in Afghanistan have been destabilising Kabul and jeopardising Washington’s exit plan. But with America tightening of the screw on Pakistan, Islamabad has gravitated ever closer to Beijing, which has reverted to increasing coldness towards India in the past two years.
Outreach to Myanmar
Out of India’s seven neighbours, only Bhutan can be counted as New Delhi’s steadfast friend, such is the consequence of New Delhi’s Rambo-style foreign policy. The approach to Pakistan has been bewildering. Uncertainty has arisen over expectations of warmer ties with the new dispensation in Sri Lanka. Incredibly, historically special relations with Nepal are in a shambles.
Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina can be banked upon. But it remains to be seen how it reacts to border fences being erected in Assam to prevent alleged illegal immigration into India.
In such a climate, the advent of the Aung San Suu Kyi government in Myanmar is a golden opportunity for South Block. The US Secretary of State and foreign ministers of several countries, including China, Japan and Singapore, have rushed to meet her. But conspicuously no high ranking official from India has visited Naypyidaw.
Admittedly, a visit by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was aborted because of her illness. If her health is a constraint, India can surely send a special envoy, such as a seasoned diplomat like Vice President Hamid Ansari.
Myanmar should be a priority for India. The Indian Ambassador there retires at the end of May. Yet no successor appears to have been announced. It would be a tragedy if a consolidation of ties went abegging because of neglect.
(Mr Ashis Ray is currently the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent, having uninterruptedly worked in this capacity for 39 years, mainly for BBC and CNN, but also for ITN, India’s Ananda Bazar Group and The Times of India)