Let battle begin
Britain’s EU referendum sets milestone for Europe and the world
by Philip Middleton
Mon 29 Feb 2016
The debate ahead of Britain’s ‘in-out’ European Union referendum on 23 June promises to be fierce and increasingly divisive. The opinion polls and bookmakers’ odds will oscillate wildly.
Served up before Europe and the world will be theatre and politics of the highest order. The ultimate consequences will be profound and far-reaching. The debate encompasses questions of nationality, economics, jurisprudence, sovereignty and democracy.
This introduction provides the coup d’envoi to daily contributions by OMFIF over the next four months from commentators and observers from Britain and abroad, presenting distinctive perspectives that are intended to be intriguing, stimulating and partial. The series forms part of our overall referendum coverage, launched with a conference on 3 March in London featuring Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, in co-operation with the German-British Forum and other organisations.
The UK has always been a semi-detached member of the EU. The institution has rarely aroused much passion among Britons. The British people are largely indifferent to the European ‘project’, and have no enthusiasm for anything ‘common’ (borders, currencies, tax rates) apart from markets.
True, the tabloid press has occasionally unleashed broadsides against perceived federalist overreach or alleged Brussels inanity, but the question of British membership has preoccupied few beyond small groups of ‘swivel eyed loons’ on both sides. Now the core principle of membership has become the primary issue of national debate, likely to dominate the headlines up to and beyond 23 June.
What started as a parochial debate within the Conservative party, involving the formation of a party campaigning for ‘Brexit’ – Britain’s departure from the EU – that garnered 4m votes (and a single parliamentary seat) at the 2015 election, has produced a confrontational referendum with immense consequences. One can argue whether this referendum has arrived through prime ministerial tactical ineptitude or as a necessary expression of catharsis for UK citizens. Indubitably, though, beneath the slogans lie fundamental questions for the UK, the EU, and the post-war western liberal consensus.
The populist banner for the ‘out’ campaign is for control of immigration, the assertion of sovereignty, and the reassertion of the fundamental integrity of the nation state. It is an argument that finds resonance in many other European countries. For the ‘remainers’, the nation state is an archaic concept, superseded by the subtleties of a multipolar world based on alliances and pooled sovereignty.
The populist banner for the ‘remain’ campaign is the so-called ‘project fear’, based on the twin ogres of economic chaos and diminished security which Yes supporters believe Brexit would unleash. The appeal is to stability and the status quo. For the ‘outers’ the EU is an analogue presence in a digital age, retarding innovation and economic growth, whereas its track record in European security is seen to be nugatory if not actively harmful.
On one side of the argument is growing public dissatisfaction with the perceived power of the political and economic elites and their web of democracy-thwarting alliances within the so-called ‘deep state’, witnessed by the results of the US presidential primaries and recent elections in Portugal, Spain and Ireland. On the other side is an appeal to the democratic and technical characteristics which have maintained peace and prosperity in Europe for 70 years.
This debate will not be resolved by any one event, even by a poll as momentous as the referendum. But 23 June sets a milestone, for the UK and internationally. Let battle begin!
Philip Middleton is Deputy Chairman of OMFIF's Advisory Board. Contributions on individual perspectives on Britain's EU referendum will appear on the OMFIF website continuously up to 23 June.
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