Britain teeters closer to the brink of Brexit

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Anthony Giddens
Anthony Giddens

Emeritus Professor at the Department of Sociology, London School of Economics

A flurry of articles and books suggest that Britain is on course to go it alone and desert the European Union – Brexit. Yet matters are nowhere near as clear-cut. ‘Brexit’ is a clumsy neologism, and it leads me to coin an equally awkward one of my own – ‘Bremain’, in which the UK stays in the EU and even contributes positively towards its evolution.

No one can say which of these is the more likely, as the backdrop in the UK, the EU and indeed the wider world is too volatile. The UK is heading towards a May 7 general election that is the least predictable in recent history. Neither the Tories nor the Labour Party has the support of more than a third or so of voters, while the country is itself in the throes of an identity crisis. Last September’s Scottish referendum on independence was supposed to settle the question of separation ‘for a generation’, but has instead stirred greater nationalist passions. Members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) could be in the UK’s House of Commons in substantial numbers after May, and may even hold the balance of power. All this has resulted in the emergence of identity politics elsewhere, with regional devolution rising on the agenda along with renewed stirrings of English nationalism.

The eurosceptics are very clear about what they oppose, but not what they want instead

If Labour come to be in government, it would almost certainly be in a coalition. The party has ruled out a referendum on EU membership unless treaty change is involved, and its likely main coalition partners – the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – would doubtless endorse this. There is talk of a ‘progressive coalition’ between these parties, of which an important plank would be active support for EU membership. Labour’s backing for the European project has, in recent months, become much more open and positive.

It is equally possible that May’s election result is so inconclusive that any government formed will lack legitimacy and be short-lived. That might provoke even more rhetoric around Britain’s membership of the EU, but no in-out referendum could be introduced until after fresh elections. If the governability issue became unmanageable, there is an outside chance of a grand coalition between the Tories and Labour, such as in some continental countries. In that case, a referendum would be very unlikely.

There remains a possibility that the Tories are re-elected, probably needing support once again from one or more of the smaller parties. David Cameron would remain Prime Minister, but dependent perhaps on the support of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). That would mean great pressure for an early referendum. Yet UKIP’s own support is highly dependent on the appeal of its leader, Nigel Farage, so it is intrinsically fragile and might very well drain away come election time. It is just conceivable that in spite of all the political vagaries, the status quo is maintained with the Tories back in power in coalition with their current partners, the Liberal Democrats. In that case, an EU referendum would certainly become problematic as the Liberal Democrats are strongly pro-European.

The eurosceptics have been far more assertive in putting their case forward than have supporters of Britain’s continued membership

Most discussions of Brexit start from the point in which the Tories are back in power, with a clear mandate for a referendum. Although this may very well happen, it is far from a foregone conclusion. But if it turns out to be the case, what is likely to ensue? David Cameron’s commitment to an EU referendum doesn’t seem in the least bit driven by conviction. It is, on the contrary, almost wholly pragmatic. He came to power in 2010 determined to stop the Tories from, as he put it, ‘banging on about Europe’. He was unsuccessful, in part because once the euro crisis took hold he found himself subject to increasing pressure from the eurosceptics in his party.

In January 2013, he was driven by the need to appease them, and in effect offered a deal embracing his Tory eurosceptics on the one hand, and his European partners on the other. To appease the former, he held out the prospect of a referendum by 2017 and, although vague on the details, coupled this to reforms in the EU. To try and get other European leaders on board, he promised to campaign for continued British membership, but in return demanded that they would accept at least part of his reform agenda.

There is much talk in UK media and elsewhere of ‘whether we should stay in the EU’, but it’s not clear who ‘we’ is

He succeeded in neither. Rather than gaining support from the rest of Europe, he took an assertive, bullying approach that had the opposite effect. Although he hedged his ‘deal’ with reservations and qualifications, it was still too pro-European for his party’s right-wingers, whose anti-EU agitation if anything increased.

For all these reasons, Cameron’s position shifted once again for political considerations rather than anything to do with principle. Driven by the increasing success of UKIP and coupled with growing disquiet among some sectors of the public, immigration rose sharply up the UK’s political agenda. So much so that it became almost the sole basis of Cameron’s attempts at renegotiation with EU partners.

That’s where matters now stand, with no clear resolution in sight. Other European leaders have made it clear that the principle of freedom of movement for EU citizens is inviolable. And there are unlikely to be any concessions that would demand treaty changes, so if there were to be a deal it would have to be limited in scope, and perhaps even confined to welfare benefits, not least because most aspects of welfare in fact remain in the hands of the member states. What David Cameron has not made clear, meanwhile, is whether in the event that he doesn’t get what he saw as a satisfactory offer he would actively campaign for leaving the EU.

The outcome of a referendum would plainly be affected by events in the UK and beyond

Should there be a referendum, the outcome is as difficult to call as the results of May’s general election. Most observers see it depending mainly on the deal he and his fellow European heads of government might come up with. But I myself don’t think so. Matters are likely to be far more complex than that because of the diversity of the factors in play. Cameron is likely to remain caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Whatever deal is reached it will not be enough to assuage the passions of Tory eurosceptics; he has to be seen to ‘talk tough’ to his European partners, yet progress with those partners depends on conciliation and dialogue.

There is much talk in UK media and elsewhere of ‘whether we should stay in the EU’, but it’s not clear who ‘we’ is. Euroscepticism is more an English phenomenon than a British one, and varies regionally within England – it is not the majority view in London, where most surveys place Britain’s relationship with the EU quite low down among voters’ concerns, even if a majority also believe that a referendum on membership would be desirable at some point.

The outcome of a referendum would plainly be affected by events in the UK and beyond. Perhaps crucially, what happens in the rest of Europe could have a major impact. The UK has returned to growth, even if its rewards are hardly being equally shared and no one can say whether it will last. Elsewhere in the EU, a few states are performing well, but overall the risk of stagnation looms large. Will the interventionist policies now being put in place bear fruit? A return to a healthier overall economic environment across Europe would almost certainly have a positive impact on an unfolding referendum debate in Britain, but the reverse also applies.

Referendums are, on the face of it, among the most effective forms of democratic decision-making. In some senses that’s true, yet experience from around the world also shows they are far from free of problems and uncertainties. The outcome of a referendum can be strongly influenced by transient events of the moment, while much depends on the precise wording of the question being asked.

The Scottish referendum result seemed all the closer because the question was ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ rather than ‘Should Scotland remain part of the UK?’ Those who favoured change somewhat perversely became the ‘Yes’ campaign, which normally carries an advantage because of its positive overtones. There was little debate in Scotland about the issue of wording, but that’s highly unlikely to be the case with an in-out EU referendum. There could be an almighty battle about the wording, and also about whether a minimum turnout should be set for the result to stand. It seems unlikely that turnout will get anywhere near the stratospheric 80%-plus in Scotland. There is also the question of who would get to vote; UKIP has said that only British citizens should take part.

I am myself a pro-European. I want Britain to remain in the EU and to play a positive part in shaping its future. That’s the outcome that is plainly in the interests of the Union as a whole. Britain may have long been among the more awkward so far as the rest of the EU is concerned, but if it were to leave that would greatly diminish the Union’s standing economically and geopolitically.

Let us suppose that there’s going to be an in-out referendum in the UK. How, in that case, should pro-Europeans seek to influence the debate? The implications of leaving the EU must be brought home to the public. Brexit would be a huge leap into the unknown, very different from the eurosceptics’ rosy portrayal of a nation set free. Britain would be out of the EU, but still within its orbit. Its destiny will remain irretrievably European, the same being true of Switzerland, Norway and Iceland. Most of Britain’s trade would continue to be with the EU, but not under conditions that it could directly influence. The notion that the UK could turn to the Commonwealth, or suddenly spread its trading net far and wide, is a whimsical fantasy. There are, after all, no real barriers to doing so at the moment, and it has not happened. Germany now has a proportionately higher level of trade with India than does Britain.

A Britain outside the EU would not magically regain its sovereignty, for the term is meaningless if it can’t be defined as a nation’s real control over its own affairs, not simply paper rights. In today’s increasingly interdependent world, Britain has more influence as a member of the EU than it would otherwise, even when in some cases it is acting alone. The United States would clearly start to bypass Britain if it were outside the EU, and so too would other major states around the world.

To prosper, the country would have to be almost the diametric opposite of the image portrayed by UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage – a nation turning back to the 1950s. It would have to be more outward-looking and cosmopolitan, and of course be more open to immigration. The possibility that it is Scottish and Welsh votes that might keep Britain in the EU if there is a referendum is very real. If, though, Britain as a whole voted to quit, the Scots would this time probably decide to break away and seek to join up with the European Union.

Eurosceptics make a great play of the “burden” of bureaucracy imposed by EU membership. Yet viewed dispassionately, membership almost certainly reduces rules and regulations rather than multiplying them. And from trade right across to security, a country outside the Union would have to negotiate separate deals with countries inside and outside Europe, as well as with Brussels. Switzerland and Norway are in precisely this situation, and whatever advantages they might get, freedom from bureaucratic entanglement is not one of them.

If it turns out there is a UK referendum, there’s a range of possible Brexit and Bremain scenarios. First, there’s the ‘sleepwalking scenario’. Either because it is a rushed affair, or because the public remains largely indifferent, Britain leaves the EU without most citizens having understood what is at stake. Then there is the ‘wide awake’ scenario in which after a full and informed debate with a high turnout, the country nevertheless exits the EU. Scenarios for remaining in the Union range from ‘somnolent acceptance’ in which the majority of voters remain largely disengaged, but nevertheless vote to stay in, to the ‘positive endorsement’ one that sees a full and informed public debate, a high turnout and a clear vote to stay in. The last is obviously the best-case Bremain scenario in which citizens are more fully informed than before and are persuaded of the positive benefits of EU membership.

Some of the more vocal eurosceptics might be happy with the sleepwalking scenario, but by any token it is contrary to the public interest. It could only be justified by minimising the level of risk and readjustment that Brexit would involve, and by ignoring acceptable democratic process. Pro-Europeans might be satisfied with the ‘somnolent acceptance’ scenario, but again that would hardly be in the country’s best interests. Should the ‘wide awake’ scenario unfold, pro-Europeans obviously could not contest it, even though – because of the Scotland factor – the country that leaves may no longer be the UK. The key question for those who want Britain to stay in the EU is, therefore, if and how something close to the ‘positive endorsement’ scenario can be achieved.

There are a good many pro-European groups across the country

Right now, nobody can say whether Britain will stay in the EU; there are too many contingencies in play. What pro-Europeans can and should do is start preparing now for a possible referendum. To do so, a lot of innovations are needed. There are a good many pro-European groups across the country, of various persuasions in terms of what they see as the best models for the future evolution of the EU. They should suspend their differences and get together to shape the membership debate. The eurosceptics have been far more assertive in putting their case forward than have supporters of Britain’s continued membership, and it’s a bias that has to be corrected. Also, many of Britain’s leading europhiles are ageing, so up and coming younger figures must be found who can command attention in the public debate – and as far as possible they should span the political spectrum.

The eurosceptics are very clear about what they oppose, but not what they want instead. They must be pressed in debate to make explicit what they are for, what kind of Britain they envisage and how the country would, on its own, resolve the cluster of problems it would face. Exactly the same applies to pro-Europeans, as the Bremain campaign would have to be about far more than just a vote to stay in. It would have to be coupled to positive ideas about reform of the EU and Britain’s contribution to shaping those reforms. The question of British exceptionalism would also have to be faced up to, since unlike almost all other EU states the UK is not even formally on track to join the eurozone.

In pre-referendum campaigns, the role of the BBC would be crucial in promoting a full and fair debate. It is likely to come under enormous pressure from all sides, and if a referendum were to be held early on in the life of the next government, it could coincide with the renewal of the BBC’s Charter, itself a highly contentious and partisan issue. Strong leadership would then be needed from within the broadcasting organisation to ensure its impartiality. Britain is unlikely to be polarised in the way Scotland was during its referendum struggle, but there are nevertheless quite fundamental differences of outlook in play. It would certainly be far removed from the muted, low-key affair of the 1975 referendum that confirmed Britain’s membership. If it takes place, it will play out against a backdrop of increasingly fractious divisions within the EU, and of the national and regional fractures that now mark the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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