‘Great Britain’ may transform into ‘Little England’
BY SHASHI P.B.B. MALLA & CHANDRA BAHADUR PARBATE
This Thursday, June 23rd, a very great transformation may occur not only in the islands of the United Kingdom, but also in continental Europe, and by inference also in the world at large. On this day, Britons will participate in a referendum to decide whether to remain in the European Union (EU), or to leave – the so-called ‘Brexit’. According to most political pundits, this day may very well turn out to be a ‘Black Thursday’ of unintended consequences. The ‘Leave’ supporters from the entire political spectrum, including Conservative and Labour members of Parliament may well celebrate their ‘Independence Day’ (from the EU!).
If a majority of the citizens of the UK decide that they prefer ‘Brexit’, it could under circumstances trigger an earthquake of major proportion which in turn would have many side effects and many aftershocks. It could expose the fault lines of British society and culture, and at the same time, shake the very foundations of European unity and culture which took dedicated statesmen six decades to construct and which arose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Second World War. The sense of a fateful moment came to a head last Thursday with the brutal and fateful murder of the young and promising Labour M.P. Ms. Jo Cox (allegedly by a right extremist shouting: ‘Britain first!’) in her constituency in Yorkshire, England where she was campaigning for the ‘Remain’ side. Both sides suspended campaigning for a few days, and it remains to be seen whether her assassination will have any effect on the outcome of the plebiscite.
The vote will decide the very nature of British nationhood – whether an outward-looking and world-involved Britain is preserved to continue to play an outstanding role in European and International Affairs, or whether it will eventually shrink (the messy divorce is estimated to last at least two years) to ‘Little England’ with its narrow nationalism and limited outlook. In the beginning, it looked good for the Remain campaign, but in the beginning of June opinion polls showed the Brexit vote surging. “Take back control” has had an electrifying impact, whereas the Remain campaign has been lackluster, only hammering the negatives. The latest official figures for net migration to Britain showed the second-highest annual number for 2015 on record, far higher than government targets, and which comprised more than half from EU countries. This was music in the ears of the Brexit movement with its slogan of “uncontrolled immigration”, and especially the xenophobic U.K. Independence Party.
Besides immigration, the ‘Leave’ campaign has also stressed the (mistaken) idea that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels (the HQ of the EU) and not the sovereign Westminster Parliament make the laws of the UK. It also means taking control of the country’s frontiers. There is no doubt that the EU is deeply dysfunctional and shows few signs of reforming. However, a British exit would in all likelihood make things worse for both the UK and the EU. The European project has been a tremendous force for good. On the economic side, it promoted trade and nurtured sustained growth. In the political dimension, the EU was a bulwark of peace and democracy in a continent with a horrific past. But today’s EU is also a community with a common Euro currency shared by most but not all members. The UK opted for retaining its own currency, the Pound Sterling and also kept out of the border-free Schengen Agreement; but it is not insulated from various other problems of European overreach, particularly allowing free migration within the region without a shared government. The common discontentment about the EU is the tendency among elites and bureaucrats not to acknowledge or learn from mistakes.
Britain has a long tradition of ambivalence over Europe. The idea of a united Europe was first broached in 1946 by wartime British PM Winston Churchill, who famously proclaimed: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” Still, Britain kept out of the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor of the EU. Its first attempt to join was vetoed in 1963 by French President Charles de Gaulle. A second attempt also failed, again through a French veto. In 1973, UK joins under Conservative premier Edward Heath. Membership was put to a referendum in 1975, and the “Stay” camp wins with 67 percent. In 1984, the “Iron Lady” PM Margaret Thatcher wins a rebate from the EEC after a threat to withhold UK payments. In 1993, the UK signed the Maastricht Treaty creating the EU after Conservative PM John Major threatened to resign unless it did so. The UK has a 12.8 percent population of the European total, and has 73 seats (out of 751) in the European Parliament. In 2014 it contributed 9.9 billion pounds to the EU budget (after deduction of 4.4 bn pounds rebate and 4.8 bn pounds public sector credits, but excluding private sector benefits to the UK).
The chief protagonists in which Britain faces an historic choice in the referendum: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” are Conservative PM David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne. Key supporters are also the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan, the newly-elected, left-wing mayor of London. The main opponents of remaining are the former Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson (who hopes to replace Cameron as PM, if Brexit is a success), the Justice Minister Michael Gove, the leftist MP Gisela Stuart, and the right-wing populist leader Nigel Farage – truly a rainbow coalition! Days before the referendum, a senior British politician, Ms. Sayeeda Warsi, a former minister and co-chair of the ruling Conservative Party, has accused the Brexit campaign of “spreading lies, hate and xenophobia.” In view of two recent polls showing 53/47 percent and 52/48 percent in favour of Brexit (excluding undecided voters) which have confirmed a trend, a polling expert has said that ‘the race was too close to call’.
The Bank of England has escalated its warnings about the fallout from a British vote to leave the EU, saying it could harm the global economy and sterling looked increasingly likely to fall further after an “Out” decision. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, has pontificated that Britain would be better off outside the EU because of high levels of migration. EU leaders have already gone on alert and are now concentrating on damage control in opening a period of major uncertainty, both in Britain and the EU amid volatility on the financial markets that has hit the value of the pound. EU President Donald Tusk conceded: “The cost will be very high also for us”; however: “The EU will survive, I have no doubt, it is still much easier to survive when you are 27 member states than completely alone.” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker made a similar point about the implications of a Brexit. There would be no ‘danger of death’ for the EU, since the process of cooperation would definitely continue.
According to “The Economist” of London, “the debate has often been neither informative nor enlightening”, with the result that at this twelfth hour, the importance of objective analysis and reasoned argument is no longer relevant. Still, it is useful to summarize the main points of the campaign. Voters have not been given clear facts about the pros and cons considering that antagonism to the EU in the UK is different from anything found on the continent. The Eurosceptics’ quest for a return of ‘sovereignty’ is completely misplaced. While the economic impact of a Brexit is difficult to anticipate, it is predictable that lacking the bargaining power of the European Union, a Post-Exit Britain may have to reckon with fewer and worse trade deals than it has now. After Brexit, the country would face pressure to replace EU regional funding and agricultural subsidies with domestic spending. With Brexit, London will lose a large part of its primacy as Europe’s financial centre. It will also suffer collateral damage to its international prestige and national security. If Britain votes to leave, the separation process from the EU could be long and painful (for both sides of course).
With Brexit, major problems are bound to emerge in Scotland (which wants to remain in the EU and may, therefore, itself seek independence from the UK), and also Northern Ireland which currently has an open border with its southern neighbour, the Republic of Ireland (causing security and immigration complications). Above all, the ‘Leave’ campaign has been willfully vague about alternatives to EU membership – there is no plan ‘B’ or even plan ‘C’! It should not be forgotten, that Thursday’s vote is a referendum and not a government election. It will be the task of the government incumbent to implement the peoples’ wish. Perhaps that is another crux of the whole matter as it allowed both Bremain and Brexit camps to tout its respective conviction in a scaremongering or unconstructive manner. Whatever the outcome this Thursday, what will remain is a deeply divided society.
The writers can be reached at: email@example.com