Referendum gamble for Britain

February 23, 2016 02:23 am | Updated 03:15 am IST

British Prime Minister > David Cameron wants London to stay in and out of the European Union (EU) all at the same time, and his counterparts would let it be. Regardless of the result in the June 23 in-out referendum on the question of the U.K.’s EU membership, the difficult and delicate deal stitched together among the leaders of the 28-member bloc carries immense diplomatic significance and value for its near future. The slogan of ever-closer integration in Europe may have carried some romantic appeal in a world recovering from the ravages of the two great wars. It may not be so compelling any longer. The enlargement of the original bloc of six countries into what is today a gigantic transnational entity of 28 is forcing the leaders of as many sovereign states to confront, from their individual perspectives, the cumulative and complex realities of competing nationalisms. As for Britain, the question whether it should stay or leave the EU has overshadowed the better part of the forty-plus years of its membership since 1973. Now, in the midst of the influx of immigrants in their millions from North Africa and West Asia, the U.K. feels the urgency to define its equation with the rest of the bloc in more precise terms. “Live and let live,” Mr. Cameron told his counterparts in Brussels, as he secured safeguards for the minority of non-eurozone states, significant in view of London’s large financial services industry.

Also read: >Cameron begins campaign to keep Britain in EU

For their part, EU leaders, while increasingly wary of the U.K.’s persistent and shrill eurosceptic stance, would not easily reconcile to the idea of the exit of one of the continent’s biggest economies, one with immense international clout and a permanent UN Security Council seat. There was implicit, if unspoken, appreciation in Berlin, Paris and Brussels in recent months that the prospect of a Brexit would not bode well politically for the bloc, as much as a Grexit would severely dent the project of the single currency, now nearing completion of two decades. That Britain is in a minority of countries that neither share the euro nor participate in the Schengen border-free zone does not diminish its weight and importance in the larger EU framework. Conversely, the exemption of Britain from ever-closer integration in the Union — a founding principle — promised in the latest agreement, represents an important, if symbolic, selling point for Mr. Cameron. Several Conservative euro-sceptics, both within and outside the Cabinet, are to campaign for an outright exit in the coming referendum. In a compromise, Mr. Cameron had to concede the retention, with some modifications, of benefit payments to immigrant workers and their children from within the EU. On both, the original unrealistic position favoured an outright ban. The Leave Campaign will undoubtedly view these changes as carrying little substance against their decided position. Despite the uncertainty over the outcome of the June vote, it is hard to imagine the British public being excited into exit mode, notwithstanding a frenzied media campaign.

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