OPINION: ‘Brexit’ and our uncertain world

SINGAPORE (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Both the European Union and the United Kingdom are significant trading partners of the Philippines, and while these relationships are unlikely to be affected, Philippine businesses and financial markets will feel—even if modestly—the effects of any instability in Europe. 

As I write this, the United Kingdom has just voted to leave the European Union—the first ever country to do so. For the British, the Europeans, and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world, this unprecedented “Brexit” will inaugurate a time of financial and political uncertainty, leading to the short-term tumbling of markets and currencies and the long-term shakeup of geopolitical relations and institutions.

What does Brexit mean for the Philippines? Both the European Union and the United Kingdom are significant trading partners of the Philippines, and while these relationships are unlikely to be affected, Philippine businesses and financial markets will feel—even if modestly—the effects of any instability in Europe. A graver concern for the government, however, would be the over 200,000 Filipinos who are living and working in the United Kingdom and employed in various sectors from healthcare to the hospitality industry. Brexit, after all, was fueled in part by a Trump-ian concern about immigration.

These concerns extend to Filipinos in Europe. Already, France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders—far-Right leaders both— are calling for “Frexit” and “Nexit,” respectively. This scenario remains unlikely, but should a wave of anti-EU sentiment sweep across the continent, right-wing governments are likely to clamp down on immigration. Although most of the half a million Filipinos in the European Union (not counting the United Kingdom) are unlikely to be affected, those aspiring to go abroad may have to look for other pastures.

One other implication of Brexit—albeit somewhat indirect—relates to the Asean project. The move toward further regional integration, and perhaps even a common currency, was inspired by EU successes, but all these can be undermined by the setbacks in Europe.

On top of these specific concerns, however, this should be a time for us to reflect on the fragility of institutions, including nations and supranational entities, in this time of right-wing populism. The late Benedict Anderson saw the nation as an “imagined community” of people who identify with each other and see themselves as belonging to that community. But we see the tenuousness of this definition in today’s United Kingdom, where being “European” competes with being “British” and even being “Scottish” or “English” as the people’s paramount identity. The fact that a majority of voters in Scotland actually voted to remain in the European Union complicates the outcome of the referendum: Already, Scottish leaders are renewing calls for their independence.

That the European Union itself is once again on shaky ground—less than a year after the specter of a “Grexit” from the Eurozone—raises the very real possibility that the European Union as we know it will be gone in the future, just as the USSR was dissolved in 1991, and Yugoslavia broken up a year later.

Or not. George Friedman, in his 2009 book “The Next 100 Years,” reminds us that changes in the world scene are highly unpredictable. In 1920, he writes, it was impossible for Europeans to imagine that the German losers of World War I would take over much of their continent 20 years later, only to lose again a few years later, and only to restore their economic might after just a few decades. He concludes: “At a certain level, when it comes to the future, the only thing one can be sure of is that common sense will be wrong.”

In Southeast Asia, we have had our modest share of postcolonial reconfigurations. For a few years, Singapore was part of Malaysia, until Aug 9, 1965, when a tearful Lee Kuan Yew announced that Singapore had been expelled from the Malaysian Federation and he had become the new country’s prime minister.

For a short while in those tumultuous 1960s, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia actually flirted with the idea of forming a federation called “Maphilindo” to unite the “Malay race.” Half a century later, a “pan-Malayan” consciousness has not materialised, and much of the Asean has yet to experience cultural integration. (Very likely, our leaders back then also never imagined that a resurgent China would lay claim to the Spratlys and much of the West Philippine Sea.)

In light of all these changes—and the fact that 10 per cent of our population is overseas—we need a strong and responsive leadership in the Department of Foreign Affairs. We can no longer afford for our diplomatic posts to be run by political appointees, given what is at stake in our dealings with other nations. We need skilled and experienced envoys who can protect our interests while forging good relationships with other countries.

Importantly, we must not underestimate the appeal of populist messages. The Donald Trumps and Nigel Farages of this world thrive on people’s sense of uncertainty and fear by blaming institutions and “establishments” for their problems—and our ongoing challenge is to communicate to our publics that change cannot happen simply by abolishing things, looking inward, or worse, embracing xenophobia. However, we must also acknowledge that many people have very real concerns about being left behind in an increasingly global economy, and as long as these concerns are not addressed, the case for more global cooperation and integration will be hard to make.

A century ago, it was still possible to say that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Today, as Great Britain retreats from Europe and finds itself at risk of further fragmentation, we must make sure that the sun never sets on our dreams of a harmonious, prosperous world.

(Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.)

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