Borderline Views: Britain and the EU referendum

Whether Cameron would have called a referendum had he not left Brussels with an agreement is another matter altogether.

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks as US President Barack Obama looks on at the White House (photo credit: REUTERS)
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks as US President Barack Obama looks on at the White House
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If I was voting in the Brexit referendum announced by British Prime Minister David Cameron last Friday, I would not need any time to think about it. I would unhesitatingly vote for Britain to remain in the EU, and that would have been my position even if Cameron had not been successful in renegotiating the conditions of membership which enable Britain to have a semi-autonomous status within this important and powerful economic and political union.
Whether he would have called a referendum had he not left Brussels with an agreement is another matter altogether.
He had invested almost all of his political capital in the renegotiation and failure to reach an agreement would almost certainly have pushed the undecided to vote against remaining within the EU and may also have resulted in his own resignation. As it is, he has announced that he will not be standing again at the next election in four years’ time, and it will be for the potential future leaders of the party to make their position clear on the role of Britain in the EU in the lead-up to June’s referendum.
Yesterday’s decision by London Mayor Boris Johnson, one of the leading contenders to replace Cameron when he eventually steps down, to support the exit campaign will be of much greater significance than the support of the radicals. How Johnson will manage to promote his Brexit position despite the clear opposition of all of London’s major financial institutions, some of which are already threatening to locate elsewhere if Britain votes to leave the EU, will be watched closely by political pundits. Depending on the outcome, and the impact on London as one of the world’s leading financial centers, the outcome of the vote could make or break the chances of the maverick Johnson becoming the next prime minister of Britain.
Sixty years ago, the ideas of European union espoused by such thinkers and visionaries as Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman were perceived as being nothing short of messianic, to be put on an equal footing with the unrealistic dreams of Theodor Herzl and a Jewish state at the latter end of the 19th century.
That dream has become transformed into a political and economic region which currently comprises 28 member states and over 500 million people, almost twice the population of the United States of America.
I would not be convinced by all those who bemoan the loss of sovereignty (how many countries really exercise sovereignty in today’s global world?), the fear of a future post-nationalist European super-state, the lack of control over borders and migration (which Britain exercises anyway since it never became part of the Schengen border arrangements), or even its famed bureaucracy which, I admit, requires a great deal of streamlining.
But while the Brexit discussion focuses around issues relating to economics, employment, critical problems of migration and the cumbersome European bureaucracy, we appear to have forgotten that European Union has brought about a post-conflict reality in a continent whose history was forever stained by some of the bitterest conflicts in the world, peaking in the two world wars of the 20th century and the horrors and the evils of the Holocaust.
I am not sufficiently versed in economics to know whether the EU is, in the long term, good or bad for the individual quality of life and sustenance of the hundreds of millions of European citizens. Listening to both sides of the debate, I could easily be convinced either way. It is obvious that the rich and powerful countries, such as the UK, subsidize the poorer and less privileged countries of the European periphery, many of which are latecomers to the Union. Free from Communism and Soviet rule, the countries of Eastern Europe have significantly shifted the economic balance of the EU as a whole. Perhaps too many joined too quickly, but this ensured that democratic regimes would prevail in many countries which were coming to grips with the new post-Soviet political realities. The political alternative, non-democratic and dictatorial regimes, would have been a far worse price to pay than a temporary worsening of economic conditions.
Those who support Britain leaving the EU should not delude themselves into some historical fantasy that they will suddenly rediscover their lost sovereignty and return to the days of Empire and Colony where their independent decision making was vital to world politics. Within the EU, Britain’s diplomatic standing has fallen, while outside the Union it will have almost no say as the major world players – the US, Russia, China and the EU – will largely determine the global geopolitical game of the foreseeable future.
Britain has always had an ambivalent relationship with the EU. Both the right-wing Conservative and socialist Labor parties have never had internal unity over the question of EU membership. There has often been a strange coalition between the radical Right and radical Left, each of which has been critical of the EU, one for taking away sovereignty, the other for taking away jobs, while the mainstream of both major parties have mostly favored membership – so it is by no means a clear-cut bipartisan issue for the British public and there are supporters of both positions in each of the major political parties.
When the first Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) of six countries was signed in 1957, Britain was not interested in being a member. It was inconceivable in the Britain of that time for the country to even consider giving up any of its island independence to “continental Europe” which was still perceived as weaker, both politically and economically. Fresh out of World War II, Britain was not in the mood for sharing and it was not an issue which attracted much public debate or consideration.
By the time the changing geopolitical realities of the post-war era were apparent with the final loss of Empire and dominions, and the decrease in global influence, the six-country Common Market was emerging as a powerful economic and political force in world affairs. But Britain, seeking new avenues of influence, was no longer a desirable member.
By the time Britain changed its attitude concerning membership in the European Community (as it was then known), the European powers of the time, and in particular French president Georges Pompidou, made it very clear Britain was no longer welcome.
Only after Pompidou’s departure from the political scene were four additional countries granted entry to the EU in its first round of expansion. One of these, Norway, eventually opted to remain outside the European Community, a position which it has maintained until today. Britain was brought into the EC by then Conservative leader Edward Heath in 1973, although the Conservative Party was then, as now, divided over the issue.
As a latecomer to the emerging Union, the terms of British membership in the EU were less favorable than those of the other major countries – in particular France, Germany and Italy.
Labour’s general election manifesto of October 1974 committed the party to allow people the opportunity to decide whether Britain should stay in the Common Market on renegotiated terms, or leave it entirely.
In 1975, the first ever national referendum to be held in the UK voted 67 percent in favor of remaining within the EU and working for change from within. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she threatened to take Britain out of the EU unless the terms of membership were changed to fall in line with the other major powers. Living up to her reputation as the Iron Lady, Thatcher stood up to Brussels and successfully renegotiated the terms of membership on behalf of Britain.
Britain has always remained one step behind most of the other EU countries – it decided against joining the euro (currency) regime, nor did it sign on to the Shengen border arrangements which govern the borders of almost all the other countries of the EU.
It was therefore not surprising when, some years ago, the idea was flouted that a senior British politician (the name of Tony Blair was prominent in the media) should be the next president of the EU, this was seen in the EU itself as a non-starter.
There have always been voices within the UK who lobby for Britain leaving the EU and these have grown louder in recent years against the background of global economic recession on the one hand, and the growing crisis of mass migration of migrants and refugees from non-European countries and cultures on the other. Issues such as the loss of full sovereignty, the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, the imposition of Europe-wide health and safety standards, and the increased flow of migrants have all been used as reasons for the anti-Europeanists to pursue their cause.
This has been reflected in the establishment of the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) which has taken large number of votes from both the Conservative and Labor parties, along with the more recent founding of GO, which acts as an umbrella organization for the growing number of groups and NGOs which favor the UK leaving the EU.
If I was undecided and required convincing, then I only had to witness, this past weekend, the growing coalition of ultra-nationalists of the Conservative far Right along with the UKIP party of Nigel Farage, combining forces with the anti-Semites and radicals of the far Left such as George Galloway, to know that, for all its faults, the EU has advanced Europe into an era of political maturity and stability which would have been unthinkable in the years following WWII just 70 years ago.
Nationalist sentiment may not have disappeared altogether, but one just has to follow the arguments of the anti-migration, pro-British isolationism camp to understand how dangerous such ideas are in a world where ethnic and religious radicalism is on the increase elsewhere.
In today’s Europe, a return to the animosities and hatreds of the 19th and 20th centuries is all but impossible thanks to the EU, and for all those who point to the growth in European anti-Semitism which has taken place in recent years, one shudders to think what would be the case if each country had been left to its own narrow nationalist-based policies, and people such as Farage (far Right) or Galloway (far Left) were in charge. Europe remains a relatively safe place for its Jewish communities, protected by state governments and the EU, which could not necessarily be guaranteed if each country was left to its own devices and internal politics.
Cameron’s decision – with his cabinet’s approval – to have a referendum in June comes against the backdrop of the new agreement which he hammered out with EU leaders last week and which, he believes, will allow Britain to remain part of the EU but at the same time retaining autonomy, and even some veto powers, in major policy areas. In deciding to hold the referendum in June, he demonstrates that he has learned his lessons from the referendum on Scottish secession from the UK which took place some years after the initial announcement, during which prolonged period the pro-secessionists and Scottish nationalists had enough time to change public opinion almost in favor of a yes vote. It is somewhat ironic that the Scots have always been in favor of being part of the EU and have made it clear that if Britain opted to leave the EU, they would press for another referendum on Scottish secessionism which would include separate membership in the EU.
This time around Cameron has considerably shortened the period of campaigning leading up to the referendum. He hopes that the new agreement, which he will present as the EU bowing to UK pressure, will convince the majority of the voters to opt in favor of staying in the EU.
Israel maintains, as it should, a dignified silence on the issue. There are no doubt those in government circles who would like to see the EU fragment, so that they can go back to playing one country against the other in their perpetual search for allies, as contrasted with a single European policy toward Israel and the conflict. There are others who understand that any such fragmentation and a return to independent states removes a powerful economic and cultural ally from Israel’s immediate environment, while it would almost certainly lead to a growth in ultra-nationalism, racism and the obvious anti-Semitism which will come with it. A powerful EU, including a major player such as Britain, can only be in Israel’s long-term interest, regardless of minor issues, blown out of all proportion, concerning the proposed labeling of goods originating in the West Bank.
It is to be hoped that the British public will realize that, in the long term, they have far, far more to gain from remaining within the EU then attempting to reverse history and to go it alone in a world where global and regional organizations are the name of contemporary geopolitics.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.