The price of Brexit is “lower than it’s ever been”, declared Britain’s most charismatic politician, Boris Johnson, on October 12. Brexit is the inelegant shorthand for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. For Prime Minister David Cameron, and indeed much of the political establishment, it’s a scary word. Mr. Johnson, the mayor of London and a leading contender to succeed Mr. Cameron eventually as leader of the Conservative party, is not calling for Britain to head for the exit door. But he’s hardly setting his face against that prospect. And with an EU referendum looming, a bruising political debate is gathering steam.
There’s no date set for the referendum; it could be more than two years away. But the jousting is now well under way in what could be the most important — and divisive — electoral tussle in Britain for many years.
In the last few days, both the ‘stay in’ and ‘pull out’ campaigns for the vote on Britain’s membership of the EU have been launched. It was once assumed that there would be a clear majority in favour of the status quo — that Britain stays in the EU. Not any longer. The opinion polls are neck-and-neck and the all-important momentum is with the ‘let’s leave’ camp. The Europe debate, more than the refugee crisis, the instability in West Asia, or the renewal of the Trident submarine-based nuclear missile programme, is the issue which is likely to dominate British politics over the next couple of years.
So how is it that Britain, the second biggest economy in the EU, is toying with pulling out of the most successful transnational political/economic union of our times? The EU has 28 member states which together are home to more than half a billion people — greater than the combined population of the United States and Russia. Taken together, the EU has the world’s biggest economy with a GDP greater than any nation or any other union. That’s quite an achievement.
Purpose of the EU At root, though, is an ambivalence about whether the EU’s key purpose is economic or political. Its origins lie in a coal and steel community established in the years after the Second World War, which had the dual purposes of binding together France and Germany and preventing further conflict between these rival European powers, and hastening the economic reconstruction of a war-ravaged continent.
Britain joined in 1973. The EU was still then known as the European Economic Community, and the attraction for the U.K. was to be part of a successful trading bloc with full access to markets across member states. The goal of ‘ever closer union’ so warmly embraced in Paris, Brussels and Bonn was never seen as an attractive option in London.
When the single currency, the Euro, was established, Britain (along with Denmark and Sweden) stayed aloof. Along with the well-founded doubts about whether a single currency could work across such a diverse range of economies, monetary union was seen as an unwelcome step towards greater European integration and a diluting of British identity.
On a host of other issues, the British came to be regarded as reluctant Europeans, perpetually demanding cuts in financial contributions, opts outs and derogations. Britain was seen as having a confused, inconsistent, hokey-cokey — ‘in, out; in, out; shake it all about’ — approach to the EU. The Conservative party in particular has faced decades of deep division over Europe. Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister endorsed the Single European Act, but used barbed rhetoric about the unwelcome prospect of a European super-state. More than any other issue, it divided her cabinet and contributed to her downfall.
Mr. Cameron has learned from that. To seek to quell the strident Euro-sceptic wing of his party, and meet the threat from the anti-EU (and immigration) U.K. Independence Party, he promised an ‘in/out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017.
It calmed the political waters — for a while; but they are now getting distinctly stormy again. Mr. Cameron probably intended to achieve some concessions from EU partners, perhaps about the status of non-Euro EU member states and about qualifying the free movement of labour, and then promptly proclaim a successful renegotiation and call for a vote to remain in the EU.
So far, it hasn’t quite gone to plan. The refugee crisis has both hardened opinion within Britain against the EU and taken other member countries’ attention away from Britain’s special pleading. Aspects of Mr. Cameron’s approach are almost comic. To the intense frustration of the EU bureaucracy, he hasn’t set down in writing the concessions he wishes to achieve — apparently because of worries that any document might leak and provide the ‘leave’ camp with political ammunition.
Among other parties, neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats will, for different reasons, be as powerful a pro-Europe voice as once seemed likely. And within the Conservative party, some of those aiming to succeed Mr. Cameron — who has already said he will stand down as party leader and prime minister before the 2020 general election — are willing to consider the option of Britain going it alone.
Mr. Johnson, of course, is a master of political ambivalence. In his remarks the other day, he said that in an ideal world Britain should stay in a ‘reformed’ EU. But it’s his comment about the low cost of leaving that catches the eye.
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and has also reported for the BBC on British politics.)