April 11, 2016
Is Britain about to destroy the European Union? If British voters opt in June for “Brexit” – Britain’s exit from the EU – the shock waves could mean that the 28-member union will swiftly unravel. And if that happens, the brave attempt to bind together the nations of Western Europe in a permanent peaceful union, begun in a blaze of postwar optimism more than 50 years ago, could be brought to a messy and uncertain end.
On June 23 Britain will hold a nationwide referendum on its continued membership of the EU. The vote was promised by David Cameron’s Conservative government as a way of trying to settle the long arguments over Europe which have split the Conservative party, stirred up public suspicion of the EU and left Britain isolated in Europe. At first, few people took the threat to leave seriously. Cameron promised he would persuade his EU partners to make a number of fundamental changes, especially on immigration, the free movement of people, moves towards political union and the powers of the Brussels EU Commission, which would reform the way the EU was run and answer some of Britain’s worries.
His chances of convincing his partners to adopt the changes looked slim. European voters and politicians have no wish to unpick the EU’s carefully negotiated treaties or to reverse the moves towards integration. They are also wary of granting any special treatment to Britain, for fear that all the other member states would also put in demands to suit their own interests and circumstances.
But to the surprise of many, Cameron did manage to get agreement in February on most of the issues that he saw as vital. He therefore came home to present a package of EU reforms, which he said the public should support in a referendum on whether to remain in the EU or leave. He has swung his government behind the Yes vote.
But things are not going his way. First, a number of senior members of his Cabinet and party still want to leave, arguing that no reforms will ever make the EU suitable for Britain. Cameron’s main rival for the future leadership of his party, the charismatic and maverick mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has announced that he will support a No vote. Others have followed, and the government is now looking weak and confused.
Secondly, the No campaign has swung into action early, with noisy campaigns that have focused on issues that are extremely controversial at present, especially immigration and terrorism, which are not directly related to the EU itself. The argument has become emotional, and has galvanised the right, especially the United Kingdom Independence Party, a grass-roots working-class protest movement on the right that won millions of votes at the last general election.
Few voters understand the implications of leaving or know what the economic costs would be. How Britain would negotiate a new relationship with its European partners is unclear. And what Britain’s standing in the world as a lone nation outside the EU is a matter that worries its allies, especially the United States, but has barely been debated in Britain. Instead, the arguments have largely been about sovereignty, Britain’s identity, its freedom to make its own decisions and its dislike of the Brussels bureaucracy.
By contrast, the Yes campaign has found it difficult to put forward any exciting arguments, relies on the fear factor, has been weakened by divisions in both the Conservative and Labour parties and cannot present the economic arguments in a way that the public can understand. As a result, opinion polls show that the No campaign is steadily gaining strength. In the eyes of many, especially British businessmen, Britain is sleepwalking into disaster.
For Europe, Brexit would be a disaster. It would confirm the political dominance of Germany – and to a lesser extent France – in the EU. It would bog down the union in internal wrangling about relations with its former member. It would seriously weaken European defence and security co-operation. It would make any solution to Europe’s problems on immigration and terrorism more difficult. And it would set a dangerous precedent: no country, apart from Greenland (a Danish dependency), has ever left the EU. If Britain went, others might follow, especially countries that are increasingly euro-sceptic such as Poland or even the Netherlands.
The British government has not said whether a No vote would automatically mean the end of Britain’s membership of the EU: there is no written constitution in Britain and referendums are rare. But a vote to leave would certain prompt another referendum in Scotland on independence from the United Kingdom (the Scots largely want to stay in the EU) and that could cause political disaster in England.
The government is hoping that when voters come to decide, they will be persuaded by the argument that Britain would be much poorer outside the EU. The economic argument is what probably persuaded the Scots not to support independence a year ago. But no one knows, and in the present uncertain political climate in Britain, with Cameron suffering the backlash of the revelations that his family had money in offshore tax havens, anything could happen. The rest of Europe is watching fearfully.
Michael Binyon has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.
He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.