Britain’s governing Conservative Party has for decades been divided over Europe — and it has unsightly scars to prove it. But the civil war that is now breaking out in the party could make past rows seem almost puny.
Prime Minister > David Cameron has called a referendum on June 23 to redeem his pledge to give the country a vote on whether it wants to be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the 28-member European Union (EU). He says the revised terms negotiated in a whirlwind round of diplomacy mean that the U.K. should remain within the EU, and that the country’s prestige, prosperity and security depend on that.
To make matters worse for the government, the country’s most charismatic political figure, >Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London, has announced amid much drama that he will be campaigning for Britain to leave the EU . The Sun newspaper trumpeted the headline “The Blond Bombshell” — Mr. Johnson is known for his unruly mop of blond hair; it’s a bombshell which could dislodge Mr. Cameron from Downing Street, and Britain from arguably the most successful supranational union of modern times.
History of the EU The roots of the EU lie in the aftermath of the Second World War with the search for ties across European boundaries to prevent the two great continental powers, France and Germany, from ever again taking up arms against each other. Britain was not initially on board, but became the seventh member country in the early 1970s.
At that stage, the EU was generally known as the Common Market, a free-trade zone much more than a political alliance. The EU expanded to almost every corner of Europe, particularly after the implosion of the Moscow-led Communist bloc in eastern Europe. Half a billion people now live in EU member states, powerful nations including Serbia and Turkey are queuing up to join, and no member state has ever left the EU — at least, not yet.
Britain has always been an uneasy member of the EU. In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher railed against European interference in member states’ monetary and fiscal policy. Her government had not roll back the state at home, she insisted, to sit back as a European superstate exercised a new dominance from Brussels.
A decade or more ago, >Tony Blair’s Labour government considered joining the Euro , which superseded such historic currencies as the franc, the mark, the peseta, and the lira. In the end, Britain stayed with the pound — a decision that now seems wise given the crises besetting the Eurozone.
London also insisted on keeping control of its borders, and staying out of the Schengen area of more than 20 nations which allow passport-free travel across their shared frontiers.
While the EU’s most enthusiastic members pledged ‘ever closer union’, with talk of a common foreign policy, a European army and more decision-making by majority vote rather than unanimity, British politicians warned of EU waste and bureaucracy. And an influx to the U.K. of hundreds of thousands of migrants in search of better-paid jobs from new member countries — notably Poland, Romania and Bulgaria — swelled misgivings about the EU.
Mr. Cameron is staging a referendum to try to end his party’s feuding over Europe. > He is giving the U.K. a vote in the hope that a decision to remain in Europe will close the matter. In his renegotiations, he wasn’t able to limit the free movement of EU nationals, which is seen as a fundamental principle of the Union and is non-negotiable for many member states. But he has managed to restrict some welfare benefits for new migrants from within the EU: ‘thin gruel’ in the eyes of his critics; a good deal for Britain, according to the Prime Minister’s backers.
‘In’ versus ‘out’ The main opposition parties — Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists — a >ll support continued membership of the EU, though with different degrees of enthusiasm. The business lobby is also largely in favour of staying in. Mr. Cameron hopes that this awkward alliance will be sufficient to deliver him victory.
Ranged against him, as well as much of his own party, is the right-wing U.K. Independence Party which attracted almost four million votes in last year’s general election. And now Mr. Johnson has given the ‘leave’ camp the one thing it lacked — a flamboyant campaigner to lead the anti-EU charge.
Mr. Johnson argues that the EU is taking too much sovereignty away from the Westminster Parliament and diminishing Britain’s greatest achievement: its democracy.
In the eyes of his critics, Mr. Johnson is advocating withdrawal from the EU not out of principle, but to position himself to replace Mr. Cameron. The Prime Minister has already said he will step down before the 2020 general election; he would probably have to go straight away if he suffers defeat in June.
>It is still likely that the referendum will endorse Britain’s continued place in Europe — but with one of the biggest hitters in politics now raining down blows on the EU, there is a real uncertainty about the outcome. One thing is clear — Britain faces a tempestuous few months until referendum day.
(Andrew Whitehead, an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and at Queen Mary, University of London, reported both from India and on British politics for the BBC.)