The outcome of Britain’s referendum on European Union membership next month is in the balance, says Peter Young . . .
Compared to the protracted process of a US presidential election, the time available in British elections for aspiring politicians to make their case to voters is relatively short.
Normally measured in weeks rather than months, election campaigns have to be concentrated on the main issues during a sprint rather than a marathon.
Thus, the long notice of Britain’s forthcoming in/out referendum about the European Union (EU) has come as a surprise to some. Prime Minister David Cameron announced on February 20 that the referendum would be held on June 23, giving four months for the contestants to make their respective cases and convince voters of their cause.
However, since there have been only two such nationwide referendum polls during the last 40 years, there is little precedent and most consider that the issue of whether to stay in the EU or to leave is of such importance that this amount of time is justified in order to have a substantive and meaningful national debate in the run-up to the vote.
The EU referendum, therefore, has already come to dominate Britain’s political and economic landscape and will continue to do so with ever increasing intensity.
The Remain side (or Britain Stronger in Europe), with active government support and involvement (including vigorous campaigning by Mr Cameron himself and delivery to every household of pamphlets making the case to stay), has wheeled out numerous retired politicians, captains of industry, business tycoons, senior military leaders, security chiefs and others to warn of the dangers of leaving the EU.
These emphasise the loss of access to the single market, reduced security co-operation which would threaten the safety of all, the EU’s role in keeping the peace within Europe over the last 70 years and a diminution of Britain’s place in the world.
In response, the Vote Leave group, urging a so-called ‘Brexit’, has labelled this derisively as Project Fear, maintaining that because of the way the EU is developing towards a supranational federal state it is essential for Britain to leave now in order to protect its identity as a sovereign nation. Furthermore, given the importance of the UK market to the EU, which exports more to the UK than it imports, it is absurd to suggest that it would be impossible to negotiate a proper trade deal with the EU following a Brexit.
Perhaps the most significant voice against a Brexit has been that of President Obama, who provided a perspective from the other side of the Atlantic during his visit to London last month.
He made it clear publicly that Britain’s place in Europe had helped significantly to maintain peace and security there and that, if the nation wanted to retain significant influence in the world (as well as the existing special relationship with America), it must stay in the EU.
The US view was that, while NATO was the ultimate guarantor of the security of Europe, the EU had played a large role not only in suppressing nationalism on the continent itself and thus keeping the peace but also, through the offer of potential EU membership, in providing an incentive to the satellite countries of the former Soviet Union to embrace democracy.
All this had been to the benefit of America, which had consistently looked to the EU for support in a range of international issues including, most recently for example, dealing with the Russians over the Ukraine and Crimea and helping to negotiate with Iran over nuclear weapons. Moreover, the US needed Britain’s help from a position inside the EU in relation to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations; and there were fears that a Brexit would not only weaken the EU economy but might also deal a fatal blow to the whole viability of the EU itself. The geopolitical repercussions would be far reaching and unpredictable.
In line with this and with the received wisdom amongst foreign policy experts that, in the absence of a successfully functioning EU, violent nationalism could re-emerge in Europe, Mr Cameron has now warned of the risk of the continent sliding back to war and genocide if the EU became destabilised - or even collapsed - following a Brexit.
Notwithstanding these apocalyptic warnings, the proverbial man-in-the-street in Britain is likely to give less weight than expected to such broad and strategic considerations about Europe as a whole - in practice, the average voter is likely to be more worried about the short-term direct effect on Britain itself.
As the debate develops, Vote Leave is stressing - notably in a recent speech by leading campaigner Boris Johnson, a Conservative MP and former Mayor of London - that the issue of Britain’s EU membership is, in essence, political rather than economic because what is at stake is the nation’s future as an independent sovereign state. As such, it should be in charge of its own destiny and be able to make its own laws, some 60 per cent of which, he claims, now originate in the EU Commission. It should run its own affairs without interference and regulation by Brussels, including control of its own borders and giving its Supreme Court more powers in relation to European law.
In a wide-ranging analysis, Mr Johnson warned that the EU was an undemocratic organisation (verging on a dictatorship) which already enjoyed the trappings of nationhood (a flag, an anthem, a parliament, a passport, a currency and a supreme court). It was continuing to move towards a federal superstate which would see bureaucrats in Brussels taking control of the core functions of national governments like defence, foreign affairs and taxation. It would also result in the disappearance of the EU nation states which would become regions of a new country called Europe.
In such circumstances, it was essential to leave now because, if Britain chose to stay, the EU would be emboldened to press ahead, riding roughshod over member states, with its plans for political and fiscal union; and all the while dragging Britain along despite its refusal so far to join the eurozone or the Schengen agreement and despite its opt-out from further political union.
Furthermore, the argument continues, given the EU’s position as a major supplier to the lucrative UK market and the difficulty for Britain (as only one of 28 member states) of influencing the rules of the single market in any meaningful way, it did not make sense to have to provide a budgetary contribution of some $500 million weekly for access to that market. Moreover, they say, co-operation on security matters would surely continue as before simply because this would be in the interest of all the countries concerned.
Mr Johnson went on to argue that, freed from the shackles of the EU, Britain could not only go it alone as a global power in its own right (the world’s fifth largest economy, a successful trading nation, a nuclear state, a leading member of the G7 and G20 and of NATO and the Commonwealth and a permanent member of the UN Security Council) but would positively thrive, being able to trade on its own terms with the rest of the world, and would finally assume once again responsibility for its own governance.
So the battle lines are well and truly drawn, but the debate will ebb and flow in the face of new revelations about particular issues; for example, concerns about immigration and excessive pressure on public services will increase following the most recent report of the Office of National Statistics showing that during the last five years some 1.5 million more EU migrants were admitted to the UK than the government had earlier announced.
Publicity has also been given to a film entitled “Brexit The Movie” which some claim will open people’s eyes to the EU’s imposition of laws on member states drawn up by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats without transparency or proper oversight by the hopelessly ineffectual European Parliament. The film also warns of the EU’s long-term plans to create the modern equivalent of a supranational empire in which Britain (and the others) as a nation will cease to exist. Others say that this is simply threatening and overblown rhetoric and that the status quo of continued EU membership and full access to the single market, as articulated by the Prime Minister, is the only safe way forward.
The latest polls, which are many and varied and published almost daily, show little difference statistically between the rival camps, but the bookmakers, who are rarely wrong, are predicting a “yes” vote to stay. Although the Remain side enjoyed a flying start with the support of the government machine, commentators are now suggesting that the 30 per cent or so in the “don’t know” category may well be alarmed by Vote Leave’s revelations about what EU membership may entail in the future and consequently be persuaded to vote “no”.
The next important step is several televised debates between the main contenders in early June. These could play a decisive role in determining attitudes. But, whatever happens between now and referendum day to influence voters one way or the other, they will be participating in what has been termed the most important decision of a lifetime for British people.
So far, the signs are that it will go right to the wire.
• Peter Young is a retired British diplomat living in Nassau. From 1996 to 2000 he was British High Commissioner to The Bahamas.