Until polls a few days ago began to roil the markets the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union had an air of unreality about it.
Everyone understood that David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on BREXIT was a ploy to smother divisions in the Conservative party between Eurosceptics, who don’t like the EU, and Conservatives who either think the EU is wonderful or just something post-imperial Britain must live with. Cameron and smart people expected Britain would sensibly vote to remain and the Eurosceptics would be put in their place. Somewhere round Coventry.
Cameron undertook to negotiate a deal with the EU to placate his Eurosceptic wing, but, as the prospect of a BREXIT was not taken seriously and Cameron had no serious ideas about what would make the EU less objectionable to Eurosceptics, all he got was a vague letter from the former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk who fancies himself as the President of Europe.
In Britain and abroad the referendum has seemed to be about the economy and immigration. For the Leaves the fact that around 500 million Europeans are free to come and live in Britain with practically all the privileges of those who were born there is upsetting. Add to which, Germany’s admission of upwards of a million migrants opens the prospect that anyone any country in the EU chooses to welcome may before long turn up in Neasden.
For bien pensants in Britain and the rest of the world this makes Leave supporters bigots and the issue is immediately settled.
The Remain campaign has argued that BREXIT would be a disaster for the British economy. They seem to be saying that Britain simply can’t leave the EU. Which raises the question why the voters are being asked whether they’d like to. Ask a stupid question and you may get a stupid answer they might have thought.
The question is not whether Britain should leave Europe, as it is often put. Europe is a geopolitical fact. The question is whether Britain should leave a particular institution, the EU.
Undoubtedly Britain’s leaving the EU would be a great disruption and how it would work out is uncertain. Markets hate uncertainty and that is enough to explain their recent behaviour. But it does not settle the question of whether Britain would be worse off, better off, or much the same economically outside the EU. That all depends.
The case that Britain would be worse off assumes that on leaving the EU it would be cut off from much of its trade with the rest of the EU. But that assumes that the EU without Britain would follow Bonaparte, the Kaiser and Hitler in trying to put Britain down by cutting her off from trade with Europe. Hardly an assumption that does much credit to the EU.
The idea that the world’s fifth largest economy could not survive on its own is rather a stretch particularly as, on its own, it would be both forced and able to adapt to the world economy in ways that its membership in the EU inhibits.
The uncertainty of BREXIT is compounded by the fact that in the event of a Leave victory it would be Cameron, who seems to believe it is impossible, who would have to negotiate BREXIT. Were he De Gaulle he’d have put his job on the line. But that would have led many who want to be rid of him to vote Leave just to be rid of him. As it is, the referendum has led to acrimony amongst Conservatives that may hasten the departure he plans before the scheduled election in 2020, hoping to cash in as fabulously as Tony Blair has.
But neither the economy nor immigration is the real issue. The real issue is whether 28 countries and 500 million people should be governed by an unaccountable bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels.
We in Canada with our provinces and Ottawa and some sense of who does what and a regular choice in elections of who they should be cannot imagine how the EU works. Most Europeans haven’t a clue. Their national governments apparently continue to function and elections take place and for most of the history of the EU and its predecessors back to the Common Market prosperity with freedom and peace has been general. How far this is because of the EU and how far a coincidence has never been carefully considered. For much of this century the prosperity has been challenged and freedom compromised as Brussels has in some countries effectively chosen who should govern, or at least how those in office should govern, whatever voters may have wanted.
For European elites this if fine. Able bureaucrats and politicians ejected from office in their own countries beaver away beyond the interfering scrutiny of national media, and voters are distracted with increasingly meaningless national politics, while Brussels sees that all is for the best. But increasingly, and not just in Britain, Europeans are thinking they are not getting what they want, whatever may be best, and BREXIT, if it happens, or even comes close, may give a shock to the whole European project.
Many outside Britain, from Barack Obama to the Pope and Justin Trudeau and most commentators, have said Britain should remain in the EU. They would be more circumspect in saying whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom or Quebec leave Canada. They should ask themselves how they would like to be governed as the EU largely governs Europe.
That’s the real question voters in Britain are faced with on June 23.