Will Britain Quit the European Union?

(Photo: AP/Steve Parsons)

Passengers pass through the UK border at Heathrow Airport.

The anthem of the European Union is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” but unlike the national anthems of member states, it’s never played in football stadiums over the cheers of thousands of excited fans. The EU is and always has been unloved, an ugly duckling, an Unidentified Foreign Object rather than a cherished darling of joyful patriotic effusion. Its benefits are diffuse and harder to demonstrate than its defects, which are ripe for ridicule in every absurd regulation. Yet it has survived for more than half a century and grown in both extent and depth, from the six member states of what was at its inception little more than a customs union, to today’s 28-member “single Europe,” which exerts powerful influence on the laws and mores of its subsidiary polities.

The last few years have nevertheless severely tested the robustness of the novel political and economic arrangements that define the EU. The financial crisis of 2008 morphed into a crisis of the euro affecting the 19 countries of the Eurozone. Russia pressed Europe on its eastern periphery, precipitating crises in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine. Last summer, Germany’s finance minister suggested that Greece be cashiered from the Eurozone if the truculent government in Athens refused to surrender to a harsh program of austerity. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing civil war, famine, and repression streamed into Europe from Syria and other troubled regions of the Third World, and EU member states have not been able to agree on how to apportion responsibility for them. Terror attacks in France, Belgium, and Denmark have raised security concerns throughout the continent and forced a rethinking of the Schengen Agreement on open borders. Authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland have clamped down on the press, threatened minorities, and otherwise violated the tenets of liberal democracy enshrined in Europe’s charter.

With such turmoil on the continent, it might seem almost natural for the “happy breed of men” occupying the Bard’s “sceptred isle” to wish to wall themselves off from the ambient chaos, as proponents of Brexit—British exit from the EU—are urging their fellow Britons to do in a referendum scheduled for June 23. Yet the great Brexit debate, like many of the fights that have erupted over the EU in its nearly six decades of existence, has very little to do with the realities of the Union and a great deal to do with the vagaries of British domestic politics.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party has always harbored a strong euroskeptic strain, and to keep peace within the party (and retain his leadership) Cameron promised in 2013 to hold, at some unspecified future date, a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU or leave. The country last expressed its will on membership in 1975, and the nature of the European beast has changed a good deal since then, especially with the adoption of the Single European Act in 1986 and the introduction of the euro in 2002. But surely it will not have escaped the reader’s notice that those dates are long in the past, so these factors cannot be the real explanation for Cameron’s 2013 concession to his party’s euroskeptic faction.

Indeed, the real opposition to the EU stems from resistance to immigration. Net inward migration has overtaken natural increase as a contributor to the growth of the UK population, which stands at a record high, putting pressure on housing, rents, and social services. Outright anti-immigration parties such as Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) blame the EU for most of Britain’s woes. Cameron therefore promised to negotiate a new deal with his EU partners not only to appease Tory euroskeptics but also to stem any possible hemorrhage of Tory xenophobes to UKIP. The negotiations, despite Cameron’s virtuosic display of feigned ferocity, yielded only just enough to make a claim of victory plausible, and with that claim the prime minister finally decided that the moment had come to set a date certain for the promised referendum: June 23 of this year.

With that decision the great Brexit debate began in earnest, and the media commenced regaling voters with reams of statistics purporting to weigh the costs of EU membership against the benefits. Yet for every businessman convinced that without the constant goad of cross-border competition forcing British businesses to “innovate or die,” Shakespeare’s “other Eden” would long since have withered into a bramble patch of shuttered shops and factories, you can find another Briton certain that the country pays far more into EU coffers than it receives in return, and that British industry is saddled with the countless unnecessary costs of complying with regulations dreamed up by Eurocrats with nothing better to do. Pub controversialists from Land’s End to Inverness will no doubt be assailing one another with impressively numerate arguments of this sort from now until June 23.

But a new wrinkle has arisen since Cameron’s triumphal return from his Crispin’s Day in Brussels. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who also aspires to replace Cameron as Tory leader, decided to stake his all on mounting a direct challenge to his old Oxford clubmate. Johnson’s euroskepticism is by no means the product of a recent conversion. He made his career on it, starting as a Brussels-based journalist. He would like to replace Cameron but without exerting himself overmuch: Exertion is not part of his persona. Backing Brexit is a high-stakes gamble, but a victory delivered gratis, by a roll of the dice, appeals more to the character of London’s posh mayor than a conquest requiring tedious warfare in the political trenches. The blonde and boyish Boris, for all his fecklessness, is nevertheless a popular figure, so his support for the “leave” side may sway some votes in what polls suggest will be a close election.

The referendum also poses a significant political challenge to Labour, whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has long been part of the substantial euroskeptic minority within the party. But a vote to leave the EU could precipitate another referendum on Scottish independence. Scottish voters seem to have a clearer sense of the benefits of the EU and in case of Brexit might well choose to sever ties with England and apply for EU membership as an independent country. This would be a disaster for Labour, which depends on Scottish support and already suffered grievously in the last major election from desertion of its erstwhile Scottish base to the Scottish National Party. Corbyn’s handling of the referendum campaign will therefore be a test of his leadership skills—a test he may well fail.

Referenda on European matters tend to be unpredictable affairs, as the 2005 vote on a proposed revision of Europe’s constitutional treaty revealed. The EU is a byzantine contrivance, whose perplexing complexities even experts have a hard time explaining. What exactly is the difference between the European Council and the Council of the European Union? Even high-information voters might stumble over such a puzzler, and they are very likely outnumbered by low-information voters such as the group described in Kathleen McNamara’s book The Politics of Everyday Europe: “A focus group of lower middle-class Britons convened in 2006 was asked by scholars to discuss the EU in a free-form interview. They ended up spending a long time discussing whether Britain should join the EU, although at the time the UK had actually been a member for over three decades.”

Debate over the next several months may change some minds, but Wolfgang Munchau is no doubt correct that the details will be too technical to matter to many. The outcome is therefore likely to hinge on images and accidents. Already the French are threatening, in case of Brexit, to close the migrant camp known as “the Jungle” in Calais, where immigrants hoping to make it to England live in squalid conditions awaiting their chance. Instead of maintaining what is effectively a British border station on French soil, French authorities will simply send hopeful migrants on to Britain and compel the Brits to deal with the ensuing mess themselves—a prospect some British voters may well find unappetizing. Or there could be another terror attack, or a resurgence of the Greek crisis, which is expected to erupt again at around the same time the British go to the polls. A summer disrupted by simultaneous threats of Grexit and Brexit is the last thing Europe needs in this time of maximal troubles.

But one thing the EU has always been good at is muddling through. Cameron’s great achievement in Brussels was to wrest from his partners an explicit acknowledgment that Britain will forever remain exempt from the clause of the Treaty of Rome committing member states to seek “ever-closer union.” If this means a federal European superstate, Britain never wanted any part of it anyway, and now Cameron can claim that he has won a permanent guarantee of special treatment. But since the prospect of ever-closer union has never seemed more remote, the prize was scarcely worth the fight. Should such union ever again become a compelling prospect, Britain might well find itself wanting in and finding the way barred by its apparent embrace of permanent separate status. Today’s victory may thus prove pyrrhic in the end. But such a consummation, however devoutly to be wished, is today but such stuff as dreams are made on—if I may end on yet another Shakespearean flourish, in homage to the uniqueness that has always set perfidious Albion apart from the quarrelsome Continent.

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