To leave the EU, or not to leave the EU, that is the question. And indeed, it is the UK’s burning question of the month. With a little more than a month to go before the UK vote on what has repeatedly been billed as the most important decision the British people will collectively make together in their lifetimes, tempers are running high.
Although I tend to list out in great detail the information surrounding each political issue in my blog posts, in this post I will not re-hash the arguments for and against Brexit. There is simply so much dirt being thrown back and forth between the Remain and Leave campaigns that it is beginning to become impossible to distinguish between fact and fiction. However, the main points can be summarised as this: those campaigning to remain are focusing on economic issues (“it’s the economy, stupid!”). They argue that leaving the EU would cause the UK to be locked out of the European single market, cause economic uncertainty that would erase the economic gains that the Conservative government has made in the past half a decade, increase unemployment and a myriad of other economic issues. Those campaigning to leave argue that remaining in the EU is making it impossible for the UK to control immigration and that it is important to leave now before more independence is surrendered to Brussels.
With regards to my own thoughts on whether or not the UK should leave the European Union, currently I am still conflicted. The economic case for remaining in the UK is strong, and such a large number of reputable individuals and organisations have come out in support of the remain campaign that they are difficult to ignore. Of course, it has been pointed out that many of these same institutions also warned about not joining the eurozone, but in hindsight it clearly has been the right move. I do have an inclination to back one side over the other, however, and I will revisit this point later on.
What I do want to look at is three different perspectives from which we can approach the EU referendum.
1. The EU referendum as a civil war within the Conservative party: At first glance, outside observers may be confused about the two opposing campaigns, Stronger In and Leave.EU. Stronger In is backed by the Conservatives (with David Cameron’s blessing), Labour (with the lifelong Eurosceptic turned reluctant defender Jeremy Corbyn) and the Liberal Democrats, three of England’s largest parties; it is also backed by the Scottish Nationalists who has turned Scotland into a virtual one-party state. Who, then, is left to back Leave? Of course, there’s the UK Independence Party, led by the irresistibly wacky Nigel Farage. But it turns out that it is also backed by one half of the Conservative Party, led by the equally irresistibly wacky former London mayor Boris Johnson.
The civil war within the Tory Party over the future of the UK within Europe has been raging for decades by this point. John Major, the previous Conservative prime minister, failed to contain the Eurosceptic wing of his party; even Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady she may be, had her premiership felled by the issue of Europe. David Cameron decided to include holding a referendum on the EU in his election campaign manifesto to put this issue to rest once and for all (and also to stop UKIP from stealing too many votes away from the Tories and dooming his bid for another half decade in Downing Street). Cameron promised to renegotiate Britain’s status within the EU, and then head to a referendum. Now the referendum has been called for and it is a month away. The only tiny issue iCameron has is that his negotiation produced very little in terms of actual, concrete results and did nothing to calm the growing Eurosceptic wing; instead, the conflict caused by the referendum is threatening to irreparably rip the party apart.
Some Tory MPs are already whispering that regardless of the outcome of the referendum, their trust in Cameron has been lost; he has betrayed the Eurosceptics and his hardball strategy to try to win the referendum is eroding it further every day. Whispering, in fact, may not be the correct word; some MPs have already publicly stated that they will request a vote of no confidence after the referendum. If such a move to succeed, Cameron would be the third successive Conservative prime minister to fall because of the European question.
This is a hypothetical worth thinking about. The Conservatives have just won their first majority since the 1990s under David Cameron, but a year later they seem ready to squander anything they’d won with such a split within the party. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has hardly been a rock of stability- “much ado about nothing” is how Cameron described the shadow cabinet’s reshuffles- but the divisions within Labour seem tame compared to what is tearing the Tories apart. But the weakness of the Conservatives provide a golden opportunity for the otherwise rather unelectable leader of the opposition. If the Eurosceptic MPs within the Conservative Party did not bring the issue to the point of a vote of no confidence but still refused to cooperate with Cameron’s agenda, his remaining years in Downing Street could end up with him as a lame duck, unable to pass government legislation.
In the event where the Remain wins handily, it is improbable to see David Cameron resign. But despite his repeated protesting that he will not resign even if the UK votes to leave, we should take his promise with a grain of salt; he said the same during the Scottish independence referendum and prepared a resignation speech anyway Who will take his place, however? Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who is probably Cameron’s favourite to succeed him, has joined the prime minister in throwing dirt at the Brexiteers; there is no way he would be able to win enough support.
Instead, the premiership would fall to Boris Johnson, the most prominent of the Brexiteers. Some have accused the former London mayor of making a naked power grab by backing Brexit; after all, he did not deny that he wrote two columns- one for Brexit and one against- and waited to release one depending on how his political calculations turned out. Boris Johnson, undeniably, is a lot of fun; he gets stuck on zipwires, knocks children down while playing soccer, and never gets a haircut. But beneath the bumbling veneer is an immensely talented politician who knows how to win power- after all, he did do it twice in Labour London. The uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump is limited not just to appearance, but also to their ability to play the media. The question is whether or not the UK is ready for their own version of Donald Trump as PM.
Either way, there is no way that UK politics will proceed smoothly after the referendum.
2. The EU referendum as an exposure of the split within the United Kingdom: whatever one thinks about David Cameron’s policies, we can have sympathy for him. He is now hated by half his party despite winning their first majority in years just last year. And after winning the Scottish independence referendum and saving the union just two years ago, the problem is once again rearing its ugly head.
The issue is Scotland is heavily in favour of remaining within the EU; according to some polls, two-thirds of voters feel that that leaving is a mistake. This contrasts heavily with England, where many regions are heavily in favour of Brexit. However, England is far more populous than Scotland, and as such England could pull the entire country out of the EU without the consent of Scotland or Northern Ireland. Anticipating this result, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, the current and former First Ministers of Scotland respectively, have already declared that a vote to leave would trigger campaigning for another independence referendum. This time, odds would be that Scotland would vote to leave.
As Nicola Sturgeon writes in an article for The Guardian:
A concern for Scotland is the prospect of voting to stay in but being taken out of the EU on the strength of a UK-wide vote. I have repeatedly made it clear that such a scenario would, in my view, lead to strong demands for a second independence referendum. Indeed, I have met people who voted no in September 2014 who say they would vote yes in such circumstances. However, I have also been clear that this is not a scenario I want to see unfold. A UK vote to leave the EU is not the circumstance in which I would choose to fight a second independence referendum – but as first minister I would have a duty to listen to the demands for such a vote.
In the end, this comes back to the issue of divisions within the UK. As ancient the union is, it is not a strong union any longer; England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not as tightly bound as we may presume. Devolving power to regional parliaments could be the answer, as promised by David Cameron, but this EU referendum issue would bypass these altogether.
How reparable is the split between England and Scotland? The issue, ostensibly, should have been put to rest by the referendum in 2014; however, threat of “another referendum” has continued to linger on ever since, and after the option was once put on the table, it now seems that it has become a permanent option. A vote to leave the EU may very well be the final straw that does take Scotland out of the union; this would make leaving the EU seeem like a Pyrrhic victory.
3. The EU referendum as a battle to save the EU itself: here I return to why I’m more inclined to back leave over remain. It is one thing to argue about the benefits and downsides of the European Union. It is another thing, however, to remember and contemplate the utterly unpalatable nature of the organisation itself.
In the film ‘Brexit: The Movie’, one of the most telling moments was when people on the streets were shown photos of top EU officials and asked whether or not they could recognise them. Barely anyone could. While I take the rest of the film with a grain of salt (it is propaganda, after all) this was particularly striking because while no one could recognise them, the fact was they were doing very much to shape the lives of millions of Europeans across the continent. Jean Claude-Juncker is hardly a household name- even if he got stuck on a zipwire during the 2012 Olympics like a certain mayor, no one would notice- but he is indeed the President of the European Commission. But what does the European Commission do? What does the President of the European Commission do? What about the European Council? Or the Council of the European Union? There is an utter lack of clarity and transparency with how the EU works
In fact, this is all the more striking because the EU’s executive branch is almost entirely unelected. For a continent that gave birth to democracy, and professes to cherish it, it is remarkable that they have allowed themselves to be ruled by a completely undemocratic executive branch, while the elected European Parliament has little power to shape legislation. Meetings happen behind closed doors. Combined with the fact that countries have actually surrendered their sovereignty to this organisation, the wholly undemocratic nature of it is astounding to behold. British voters hold dear to their heart their right to kick out prime ministers when they want; no one could kick out Jean Claude-Juncker even if they voted to.
We must also not forget to mention the Eurozone. While the UK is not part of the single currency, it has undoubtedly created headaches for member countries across the continent. The Greek debt crisis, for example, threatened to bring down the entire system. (A digression: the handling of the Greek debt crisis by the European elite was also sickening and it is no wonder that many were disgusted by the strong-armed approach that the EU took to deal with the new Syriza government in Athens last year).
The result is that polls have begun to show that many countries apart from the UK are discontent with the EU. This leads me to question: could the EU actually survive a Brexit vote? Once the UK leaves, it is not difficult to see many other countries demanding a referendum to leave as well. Countries that were particularly hard hit by the eurozone crisis could very well end up exiting, leaving the EU as a shadow of its former self. In the end, the question of whether or not the UK can survive without the EU may turn into a question of how the UK must survive without the EU, as there is no EU left to survive with. This sounds far-fetched, to be sure, but I would not rule it out; this is a fragile organisation.
Another more possible outcome is strong calls for the EU to be reformed. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister who went against all the powers that be in the EU during the Greek debt crisis last year, announced that he was backing the Remain campaign. However, he did not do so because he approved of the EU; he did so because he disapproved, but felt that it could only be reformed from the inside by the efforts of everyone. To this end, he started the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25- to democratise the European Union by 2025). A narrow victory by the Remain camp could very well cause enough of a shudder within the EU to prompt serious reforms of the union’s undemocratic structure.
No matter what, however, the EU would not remain the way it is. The Brexit referendum, intentionally or not, is now a battle to save the entire EU itself. And considering the state of the current European Union, any reformed European Union is a better European Union.