by Alex Scrivener, Global Justice Now, 13 July 2016
Outer Mongolia has, like Timbuktu, always been one of those places well known (from an anglo-centric perspective) for being very far away from the UK. However, the Asia-Europe People's Forum held in Ulaanbaatar wasn't far enough away for the subject of Brexit not to be an ever-present shadow over discussions.
The Asia-Europe People's Forum (AEPF) is held to coincide with ASEM, the high-level meeting of political leaders from Asia and Europe held once every two years. It brings together civil society from across both continents to, as the official byline of the conference states, 'build new solidarities'.
Usually at these kinds of events, the main aim for people like me coming from the UK is to listen to voices from the global south that are insufficiently well heard in our own country. We try to play a humble role – seeking to coordinate with allies from the global south in ways that will strengthen our collective hand in battles with multinationals or our own governments. The intricacies of UK politics are rarely centrally important or even very relevant to the social movements and civil society organisations that frequent such gatherings. In other words, rightly or wrongly, as Brits we are used to be being givers rather than receivers of solidarity.
But there was a big difference this time. Brexit had thrust the UK uncomfortably into the limelight. It was us who now needed the solidarity and support from our Asian and European allies. People from all over Europe and Asia wanted to discuss what had happened and how this would impact upon the wider movement. A special meeting was held one evening to discuss Brexit at which those of us from the UK were called upon to explain what had happened.
Some of the contributions from Asia were amongst the most interesting. There were questions about the implications of Brexit on regional integration in other parts of the world. What are the implications going to be for bodies like ASEAN, the group of southeast Asian countries seeking integration on a model similar to that of the EU? Could trouble in the EU put a stop to integration in other parts of the world? There were also worries about the rising tide of anti-immigration feeling with anecdotal evidence that, since the referendum was called, Asian people are already being denied visitor visas in much larger numbers. From some of the Europeans, feelings of intense sorrow about Brexit came alongside the feeling that maybe, just maybe, with one of Europe’s most neoliberal states out of the way, it would now be possible to build a more progressive Europe without us.
But overall the attitude towards those of us from the UK was one of overwhelming solidarity. It felt incredibly good to be part of this extended civil society family at this time. And it left me with the strong feeling that we must ensure that we live up to our side of the bargain. Post-Brexit UK is very likely to fall back on even more exploitative trade relations with countries in Asia than has been the case until now. There is a huge risk of climate change targets being abandoned in the rush to secure growth at all costs. Already corporation tax is being lowered and financial regulation may be further liberalised as the UK positions itself to be a massive tax haven for multinationals and hedge funds. If we fail to fight this, the impact could be disastrous and will be felt hardest by those living in the global south. We have a responsibility to respond to the wave of solidarity from our friends across the world with action to fight the worst effects of Brexit.
Of course, having said all this, there was a lot more to the AEPF than discussions of Brexit. The meeting was a fascinating opportunity to talk to people and organisations I would never otherwise have had to opportunity to have met. It was also a brilliant opportunity to exchange ideas and test new approaches with a diverse and friendly group of people.
For example, at a migration event I was invited to speak at, I set out Global Justice Now’s position that the so called ‘migrant crisis' in Europe is in fact a crisis of poverty and inequality and that we need free movement for people from the global south. I went in not knowing what to expect. But I needn't have worried. There was broad agreement about what we needed to call for. I heard Indians talk about their struggle against the rising tide of racism set off by their nationalist BJP government. I heard a Berlin city councillor talk of how he had personally worked to set up accommodation for Syrian refugees. And I heard much criticism of southeast Asian governments' refusal to take in Rohingya refugees from Burma who had been left floating in the Andaman Sea, much like their counterparts in the Mediterranean. This other refugee crisis, almost unreported in the West, is a strong reminder that this is a global struggle, not just a European one. And the fact the meeting was in Mongolia was quite an inspiration, considering its strong nomadic lifestyle that has free movement at its core.
At another event on trade deals and climate change, there was a fascinating discussion on strategies for combating extreme neoliberal deals like TTIP and their impact upon climate change. The most interesting debate centred around what sort of alternatives we should be pushing for. Is it enough for us to simply be resisting deals like TTIP and TPP? Should we start advocating for alternative, progressive multilateral frameworks on trade or does this agenda risk being co-opted by powerful interests?
And there were many contributions from Mongolians about the problems surrounding extractive industries polluting the environment in the country. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to venture far beyond the city of Ulaanbaatar, what little I did see did make me understand why extractivism is felt especially painfully by people in this society that prides itself on its relationship with its beautiful environment.
So while any personal hopes I may have harboured on my way to Mongolia of putting Brexit out of my mind were not fulfilled, for me, the AEPF did genuinely live up to its billing as a place to build new solidarities. If we are to get anywhere in this increasingly uncertain world, we are going to need as much of it as we can get.