5 November 2015

Why Indians want Britain out of the EU


David Cameron is calling in favours from world leaders at present. He wants them to opine that Britain, everything considered, ought to stay in the EU. They often oblige: heads of government do that sort of thing for each other.

So we may be pretty certain that, when India’s Narendra Modi comes to London next week, Britain’s PM will try to charm him into saying that India is happy for the UK to retain its current arrangements.

The trouble is, it’s not true. I have spent the past week in India, talking to business, university and political audiences in Bombay, Bangalore and New Delhi. I haven’t come across a single Euro-enthusiast. What I’ve heard, instead, is frustration at the EU’s nine years of delay over negotiating a free trade agreement, and annoyance at the way Brussels rules on free movement discriminate against Commonwealth nationals, including those with strong family links to the UK.

It’s true that Indian businessmen want Britain to trade freely with the EU. So do British Eurosceptics. So do Brussels officials. So does everyone else. Our market access is not in question. Some 45 European states, from Iceland to Turkey, form a common market, 28 of whose members are also in the EU. No one is suggesting that Britain would cease to be one of the 45.

But you don’t have to join a political union with your neighbours in order to trade with them. Britain’s organic ties with India – ties of habit and history, language and law, family and friendship – are being displaced by top-down, artificial ties with the EU.

They were displaced, first, because Britain was forced to apply the EU’s Common External Tariff after 1973. Where we had been in the habit of buying textiles and commodities from the subcontinent, we now found ourselves subject to protectionist interests elsewhere in Europe.

An exporter in my constituency would naturally trade more easily with a firm in Ludhiana than with one in Ljubljana. As well as the English language, the two companies would have the same accountancy systems and commercial practices. If there were a dispute between them, it will be arbitrated under a common law model familiar to both parties. None of these things is true of the EU.

Two generations ago, when most business was localised and freight costs were high, regional customs unions had a certain appeal. But in the Internet age, geographical proximity has never mattered less. Culture and kinship trump distance.

Sadly, they don’t always trump politics. An Indian World War Two veteran, arriving at Heathrow Airport, must line up with the rest of the world while men who might have served on the other side stroll through as EU nationals. Non-EU students, of whom Indians used to be the largest component, are now chased out of Britain on the completion of their degrees to free up space for unlimited numbers of EU migrants, who have the right to settle as if they were British, even when they have no connection whatever to the UK.

Among my constituents of Indian origin, many families have recently experienced problems with visas for visiting relatives. Because there is a practical limit to the amount of inward migration that any country can take, as long as we are obliged to open our doors to 600 million EU nationals, we have to crack down on other forms of immigration.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should have an open door to Commonwealth migration, any more than we should have an open door to EU migration. But there should be no discrimination against non-EU nationals. It is idiotic that we are, in practice, forced to turn away computer programmers from Bangalore because their places have been filled by unqualified workers from Bialystok. We should have a fair, points-based system, in which people from all over the world can compete equally.

As we mark Remembrance Sunday, with peculiar poignancy in this centenary year, I think of the 1.3 million Indians who volunteered to defend freedom in the First World War. I think, too, of their sons, 2.5 million strong, who joined up during the Second World War. There was no conscription in British India: every one of those men made a personal decision to enlist.

Next year, Britain will have to decide whether we are defined chiefly by our geography. Must we merge with states which happen to be in the vicinity, or do we recognise that some values transcend continents, linking us to kindred peoples in more distant lands?

Those jawans from the Ganges plains whose names are carved into the Menin Gate at Ypres, those ryots from the Deccan who dropped their ploughs to shoulder rifles in East Africa, gave their answer to that question. Were they wrong?

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament and blogs at www.hannan.co.uk.