Brexit Beckons

Europe's World

Picture of Robert Cox
Robert Cox

Senior Advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998) and former European Commission Representative to Turkey

EU politicians habitually swank about their achievements after European Council meetings, but David Cameron’s nationalistic bombast as he claimed ‘victory’ in the early hours of Saturday was excessive even by Brussels standards. Now, though, Cameron has four months in which to convince his fellow Britons to vote in a referendum on June 23 to stay in the European Union, and the chances are that he will fail.

As is always the problem with referenda, rational arguments will have an uphill battle against populist mood music. There is a real danger, too, that as the campaign drags on, Cameron’s stance and emotions will increasingly yield to his innate eurosceptic persuasion, and the Prime Minister will be drawn ever closer to the view of his opponents such as Boris Johnson, or might even take a leaf out of the book of Nigel Farage. Additionally, few if any British political heavyweights will poke their noses above the parapets to back the ‘remain’ vote. That applies particularly to the main contenders for Cameron’s own job, George Osborne and Teresa May, who will be busy keeping their powder dry for the succession while avoiding contamination by Boris Johnson. Labour’s leadership will also be mute, pre-occupied as they are by internal tensions. The only British top-notch politician likely to campaign in earnest is Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. But Scotland’s and therefore the United Kingdom’s – future as such in the event of a Brexit is another story.

Few if any British political heavyweights will poke their noses above the parapets to back the ‘remain’ vote

There will similarly be few ‘Continental’ EU leaders adding their voices to the remain campaign – leaving aside the fact that ‘interference by foreigners’ will surely be condemned as such by popular papers like the Daily Mail. Besides, François Hollande and Angela Merkel are on their own slippery downward slopes ahead of crucial elections at home. There are few votes to be gained by either from French and German citizens for pleading with the Brits to stay. And the United States, traditionally a keen supporter of Britain’s EU membership, is now completely engulfed in its own increasingly nasty election campaign.

Two other unknowns will overshadow the British vote: the turnout and the margin of result. A turnout of 35% and a 49%/51% result cannot be a recipe for putting the ‘European issue’ to bed for good. And if England votes to ‘leave’ while the Celts say ‘remain’, another headache is added. The entire problem has been thrown into sharper relief still by the ‘self-destruct’ clause in the Brussels agreement whereby the deal dies if British voters opt to leave. But if such is the case, then we shall all have to endure even further misery as the time-, energy- and patience-consuming juggernaut of an Article 50 negotiation for British departure lunges underway.

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