This article was originally published in iPolitics, on March 2nd, 2016.
After the traditional cliffhanger negotiations, Britain has reached a deal on new terms for its membership in the European Union, and June 23 has been set as the date for Britain’s In/Out referendum. The vote is a huge gamble with Britain’s future, and a potential threat to the wider cause of international liberal democracy.
The European Union is unloved in the UK. It is cumbersome and intensely frustrating. It is accused of over-regulation. Its procedures are complex and little understood. It has never succeeded in connecting with ordinary citizens. For years it has been the whipping boy of British governments, who blame it for every ill. The British media, meanwhile, lose no opportunity to rail against Them (ill-intentioned, corrupt and undemocratic) who are out to pull one over Us (powerless and put-upon).
The EU is in crisis, too. The travails of the Eurozone are far from resolved. The migration tide has fuelled an ugly rise in populist nationalism across the whole continent. Everywhere, the political establishment is losing the trust of voters. There are striking and worrying parallels with the Trump phenomenon in the U.S.
Yet a Brexit would be Britain’s greatest policy blunder since the Boston Tea Party, leaving the country utterly diminished. Britain would abandon the leadership of Europe to others. It would be of less help to its allies — including Canada — and of less concern to its enemies. It would be severely weakened economically (as even Brexiters are prepared to admit, if they are honest, though they see this as a price worth paying for the illusion of ‘taking back control’).
Paradoxically, Britain would lose influence over its own affairs, since it would become a rule-taker in Europe rather than a rule-maker. Brexit might well precipitate the break-up of the United Kingdom, since Scotland would oppose the decision. It certainly would create new tensions in Ireland because of the necessity for a land border between North and South. Britain surely would be condemned to years and years of economic uncertainty, bitterness, recrimination and buyer’s remorse.
Above all, by leaving the EU Britain would do grave damage to its continent, swelling the dangerous tide of re-nationalisation. The only world leader who would cheer would be Putin, who has an interest in weakening Britain and Western Europe, thereby also damaging the prospect of a strong rules-based, democratic international system.
David Cameron never really wanted this referendum. His fervent wish was to “stop banging on about Europe”, as he put it, since deep party divisions on the issue repulsed the electorate, while the subject itself has always confused and bored people. He was forced to offer the In/Out vote to buy a few years of peace on his backbenches — though he also saw tactical advantage in wrong-footing the Opposition, as he did very effectively at the last election.
Cameron has never doubted the national interest in continued British membership of the EU, but he did not dare make that case openly for fear of reigniting disputes in his party. Instead, he professed support for a hypothetically ‘reformed EU’ — and then embarked on rather a synthetic quest to achieve one.
That negotiation is now concluded, and the prime minister has declared victory, as he was bound to do. He has achieved rather more than most people expected, especially in securing safeguards for non-members of the Eurozone. But on the issue of migration, which has been overwhelmingly the dominant public concern, he is having to over-sell a marginal change.
Ideally, the In camp would take the high ground, explaining that “benefit tourism” by EU migrants is largely a myth. They represent a net benefit to the Exchequer. The bigger problem is with non-EU migration, which would not be affected one jot if Britain were to leave the Union.
Sadly, however, it is too late to make that case. The government was so panicked by the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) a year ago that it fuelled public hysteria by mirroring UKIP rhetoric instead of confronting it.
It is more than half a century since Dean Acheson delivered his quip about how Britain had lost an Empire but failed to find a role. Sadly, the observation still holds some force. Britain’s reluctance to engage properly — let alone to lead — in Europe is evidence that it has not yet come to terms with its reduced status in the modern world. If Britain was the great and confident country that Brexiters yearn to reclaim, it would contribute wholeheartedly to building an effective European Union. Instead, there is atavistic regret for what is past, and an impulse to blame relative decline on foreigners, elites and especially Brussels — to “bawl at Gaul”, as a famous Sun headline put it.
Referendums are notoriously unpredictable in their outcomes. Polls suggest that this one will be tight. It can only be hoped that the good sense of the people will prevail over those seeking to persuade them to build walls instead of bridges, to embrace narrow nationalism in the name of patriotism.
Canadians in the UK — who are eligible to vote as Commonwealth citizens — can help to achieve that outcome. It is important that they do.
Anthony Cary is a former British diplomat who served as High Commissioner to Canada and a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.