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Brexiteers, Lexiteers, and others

In less than two weeks the British electorate will be polled on a simple question that will have national consequences. The question, carefully drafted to ensure the absence of bias, is this: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” On its answer depends not just the future of Britain but of the EU too.

This question has been roiling Britain and its economic and political establishment for the last several weeks, splitting mainstream parties, trade unions, businesses, the media, and the large not-for-profit sector down the middle. Significantly, it is the differences that lie within these groups that inform the debate.

Briefly, the background to the EU lies in Europe’s post-World War II history. Emerging from a series of treaties that eventually led to its establishment by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992-93, the EU is essentially a compact among European nations that today favours big business. It won popular support from a population that had suffered the horrific consequences of World War II and believed an international arrangement like the EU would guard against its recurrence. This hope has been achieved within the EU, although there have been bloody conflicts in countries prior to their joining the EU — most notably the ethnic violence that attended the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Running neck and neck

Britain joined the European Economic Community, as the precursor of the EU was called, in 1973, but under considerable opposition from within the country. This led to a referendum on the issue in 1975 under the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. In that referendum, Britain voted to stay in the common market with 67 per cent in favour on a 65 per cent turnout.

Much has changed in the political and economic environment in the intervening decades. The EU today has 28 members. With a group of major ex-communist countries joining it in 2004, the “freedom of movement” clause of the EU has seen increased economic migration into the U.K., fuelling the ever-present anti-immigration sentiment and the argument that increased migration from poorer EU countries would put a severe strain on national resources.

Pollsters on the referendum campaign and debate are considerably more cautious now, given their epic failure to predict the results of the 2015 general election. Nevertheless, polls on the referendum show a significant “undecided” element, which suggests that the average citizen is still not thinking about, far less decided, on how he or she will vote. Till recently the two sides were running pretty close, with the edge in favour of ‘Remain’. However in the last few days the ‘Leave’ campaign has picked up momentum. The latest Observer/Opinium poll shows that those who wish to exit — the Brexit camp — are at 43 per cent, and the Remain at 40 per cent.

The political divide on Europe is sharpest in the Conservative Party. Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne, and a major group of Conservative parliamentarians are on the Remain side. Against the EU “super-state” is an equally powerful group helmed by former London Mayor and Member of Parliament Boris Johnson.

The issues at play

There are five broad issues on which the referendum debate rests. The first and most emotive is immigration and the open borders policy of the EU. The Leave side has cynically exploited immigration fears by reinforcing racial immigration stereotypes. The Remain camp argues — correctly — that EU migrants contribute more to the national economy than they take out. Brexiteers counter this by saying that EU migrants put an enormous strain on the National Health Service, housing, schools and the social infrastructure.

The second issue is security, with one side arguing that in the era of international terrorism and criminality, cooperating with the EU will make the U.K. safer, while the other side says that the security risk will in fact increase if the U.K. does not have control over its borders. On the crucial issue of jobs, the Remain side argues that as three million jobs are tied to the EU there could be a jobs crisis if the U.K. leaves the EU; Brexiteers claim that there will be a jobs boom without the fetters that EU regulations impose.

On trade, the Remain side says that access to the single European market, free of tariffs and border controls, is critical for the U.K. as 45 per cent of its trade is with the EU. The Leave side says that the EU needs British markets and individual trade deals with European countries can be easily negotiated. Finally, there is the future of the City of London, Europe’s financial centre. Remain argues that leaving the EU will put the dominance of the city at risk as banks will move out, whereas the Brexiteers argue that London’s status is unassailable as it is already a global power base.

If the British Right is split on the referendum, so too is Britain’s Left and trade union segment. In 1975, the then-unknown Jeremy Corbyn, who is now leader of the Labour Party, voted against the U.K. joining the common market. Today he supports Remain, even though a significant Left group remain strongly pro-Brexit — or Lexit (Left for Exit) as they call themselves. The group Another Europe is Possible, which includes Momentum, the grassroots Labour party movement formed to support the politics and vision of Mr. Corbyn, argues for reform of the EU, but from within.

The Lexiteers include a section of the trade union movement and smaller Left groups and parties. They emphasise the Cold War origins of the EU and its support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation aims. The EU is a pro-market and pro-austerity economic union that has through its trade policies and military alliances made by some EU nations destabilised countries like Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Leaving the EU offers Britain the potential and the objective basis, the Lexiteers argue, to create a sovereign state based on greater social and economic fairness in the long term.

In this complex referendum debate both sides have resorted to widespread misinformation, a recent report by a cross-party Treasury Select Committee noted. The imponderables on both sides are glaring, a situation that may eventually work in favour of the Remain side. Status quo, with all its negatives, is after all a safer bet than the risks of the unknown.

parvathi.menon@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 5:28:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Brexiteers-Lexiteers-and-others/article14412689.ece

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