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Analysis
The die is cast

The die is cast

Referendum has changed much, settled nothing

by Philip Middleton in London

Thu 23 Jun 2016

The moment of decision is upon us after a 100-day campaign characterised by courtesy, insight, and informed argument.

There has been sadness, anger, optimism, and inspiration.

We have heard from fervent federalists urging the British people not to turn their backs on the European dream of peace, prosperity and democracy. We have thrilled to passionate patriots urging the UK to reclaim its sovereignty. Debate has been joined by politicians, central bankers, academics, economists, businesspeople and journalists: by proponents of all sides and none.

Yes, the OMFIF 100-contribution referendum series has been a wonderful enterprise: informative, engaging and the model of an outstanding debate. We thank all participants.

Back in the real world, we have reached the end of a campaign which has been rancorous, mendacious, and vituperative on all sides.

The Remain campaign has unleashed ‘Project Fear’, rounding up politicians, business representatives and international bureaucrats to prophesy economic and diplomatic catastrophe should the British electorate dare upset the Brussels applecart.

The relentless barrage has probably been counterproductive. It has reinforced a strong anti-establishment feeling in an electorate who suspect vested interests lie behind many supposedly expert opinions.

The case for Remain has displayed a general lack of positive reasons for remaining in the European Union. It seems we are all eurosceptics now. But fear of a potentially disastrous leap in the dark is gnawing at the vitals of the electorate.

The Leave side has offered an ill-defined vision of a resurgent UK liberated from the shackles of Brussels amid dire warnings of an imminent flood of undesirable immigrants. It has signally failed to agree upon, still less communicate, a vision of what a post-EU UK might look like, still less how we might get there.

There has been dissonance in the Brexiteers’ ranks between the raucous anti-immigration lobby and the more thoughtful who wish to reclaim sovereignty and turn the UK off the Autobahn leading to ‘ever-closer’ political union (which some see as a federal super-state run from Berlin).

Somewhere in this debate there has been an intelligent discussion over the nature and practical application of sovereignty in a multipolar world, but it has been hard to hear the argument above the cacophony. Most voters will go to the polls today agonising over whether to follow their gut feelings and vote to leave, or heed the warnings and reluctantly opt for the greater certainty of the status quo.

The result is far too close to call. Whatever the outcome, Britain and Europe have crossed a Rubicon. Fissures have opened which will not quickly or easily be sealed.

Euroscepticism in Britain has moved from being the obsession of an eccentric minority to the acquis of the Establishment. Whoever is the next prime minister, he or she will almost certainly be a eurosceptic.

Some might say that the question now is not whether the UK leaves the EU but when, how and on what terms.

The British want amicable relations with their continental partners and unfettered access to the single market. They do not wish to be part of the political project beloved of Brussels, although they wish their neighbours every success with it.

The challenge in London and continental capitals will be whether those terms can be negotiated in amity or in animosity, in positive or negative mood.

The referendum has polarised British politics. It will ultimately lead to a significant realignment of the British political scene, in both personalities and parties. It has helped open a Pandora’s box on the Continent. And it raises existential and urgent political issues for EU institutions and for national governments.

In short, the referendum has changed much, and settled nothing.

The die is cast; but we are far from the end of the game.

Philip Middleton is a Deputy Chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board. This is the 100th and final piece in the OMFIF series on the UK referendum.

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