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Posted at: Jun 1, 2016, 12:46 AM; last updated: Jun 1, 2016, 12:46 AM (IST)

Indian curry in Brexit row

There are 1.2 million British Indian voters and their vote will be crucial in a tight contest —especially, if as seems likely, the turnout is low. Not surprising then that the diaspora is being heavily wooed.
Indian curry in Brexit row
Employment minister Priti Patel (extreme right) & other British politicians at the launch of the Vote Leave campaign in London.

Apparently,  Britain's once-popular Indian curry restaurants  are imploding and reportedly closing down at the rate of at least two a week as customers turn their backs on them complaining that their erstwhile favourite curry doesn't quite taste the same anymore. Restaurant owners hold up their hands, “guilty as charged”, but  ask: how could it taste the same when it is no longer made by Indian chefs, but by Europeans with no previous experience of cooking Indian food? They blame this on new visa rules for non-European Union migrants which are are so stringent that they effectively bar restaurants from bringing chefs from India, resulting in a huge shortage of good curry chefs. 

An industry, which employs  100,000 people and generates annual sales of over £4 billion, is said to be dying a slow death. But now the same lot of Tory politicians who voted for those rules are promising to change them if Indian immigrants back their campaign  for Britain to leave the EU. Priti Patel, Employment Minister and the government's “UK-India Diaspora Champion” admits that the current system discriminates  against Commonwealth citizens. But if  Britain votes to pull  out of the EU in the forthcoming “in”/ “out” referendum it could have a “fairer” policy as it would no longer be  bound by its rules on free movement of migrants from member states. There are big question marks over these claims but clearly they have an appeal for small businesses dependent on cheap labour from back home. 

But on the other side of the divide there are big boys of Indian industry whose interest don't quite coincide, to put it mildly, with those of the currywallahs and corner-shop owners. And they're making no secret of their preferred outcome. They're lobbying quietly for Britain to remain in the EU and,  given the stakes, it is safe to assume that New Delhi supports them though officially it has not taken a public position to avoid accusations of interfering in Britain's domestic affair. For hundreds  of Indian companies, Britain serves as a gateway for access to a huge European market of more than 500 million consumers. And they will lose this automatic access if Britain leaves the EU. They will then have to set up separate operations in Europe and negotiate new agreements with European companies. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) is privately briefing its members on Brexit's potentially negative  impact  on their businesses. Its Director-General Chandrajit Banerjee has described the access to the European market as a “key driver”  for UK-based Indian companies and said it is “important to ensure border-free access to the rest of Europe.”

“Anything that lessens this attractiveness may have a bearing on future investment decisions.” Other Commonwealth business leaders have also stressed the importance of border-free access to Europe which  Britain's EU membership provides to its non-EU trading partners. Leaving the EU would “mean going back to the drawing board” involving lengthy negotiations to secure new deals, the Confederation of British Industry has warned. 

There are 1.2 million British Indian voters and their vote will be crucial in a tight contest — especially, if as seems likely, the turnout is low. Not surprising then that it is being heavily wooed. Prime Minister David Cameron appeared  on a local Sikh TV channel to make the case for staying on in the EU, while  prominent Asian-origin  MPs from both sides are aggressively targeting ethnic voters with visits to temples, mosques and gurdwaras; and  love bombing them with pamphlets in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati. The Leave campaign  is proving to be more combative and has unleashed a heavy artillery of its star  MPs to work on ethnic voters.

Broadly, the debate is around the economic cost-benefit of remaining in or leaving the EU; and immigration.  Brexiteers say the cost  is too high and the money Britain would save by leaving could be spent to improve its tottering public services. Besides, Britain would become truly sovereign again instead of being “dictated” to by “unaccountable” bureaucrats in Brussels. With control over its national borders restored to it, London would  be able to restrict entry of EU citizens, bringing  immigration down.

“Nonsense”, retorts the Remain campaign insisting that the EU is good for British economy; Britain never lost control over its borders; its national sovereignty remains very much intact; and immigration will not fall dramatically if it leaves the EU.  Leaving the UK would be a historic “betrayal” of British interests and isolate Britain internationally, Tony Blair has said. Barack Obama has already warned that America would put Britain “at the back of the queue” if it leaves the EU.

So, who's right?

It is true that the EU project has gone way beyond its original remit and become too big, too uneven, too bureaucratic and utterly incapable of handling big situations as we saw during the Euro  and refugee crises. It is in need of serious and urgent reforms. But, it remains a force for good in a fractious Europe and has been a boon especially for its poorer East European member states. A host of independent national and international financial institutions, including the IMF, have warned that a Brexit could trigger another recession at a time when Britain is still struggling to recover from the last one. Political passions are not so much running high as gone berserk with a ferocious  civil war raging in the ruling Tory party; and tensions boiling over  in Labour. The campaign has descended into a nasty, noisy brawl with insults, massaged statistics, concocted  “facts”, and apocalyptic scenarios  flying around. Figures  plucked from thin air are being tossed around to warn of hordes of new migrants  “swamping” Britain. The Leave side, in particular, is showing signs of desperation as polls tighten in favour of Remain. Having lost the economic argument, they have fallen back on their default position: exploiting fears over immigration even if it means fabricating “facts”.

Ordinary  voters, meanwhile,   remain indifferent; and terribly  confused. When  wanting to dismiss something,  Brits like to say,  “People aren't talking about it at the Dog and Duck. Are they?”  No, they aren't. Some 63 per cent university students don't even know the date of the referendum. Cameron took the plunge in a desperate bid to buy peace with his Europhobic colleagues but it has had the opposite effect. Divisions have become deeper and the threat to his leadership graver. When this unnecessary and costly charade finally concludes on June 23,  it would leave British politics and the country ever more divided.

The writer is an independent London-based columnist.

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