Preventing disaster in the Solstice Referendum


Picture of Andris Piebalgs
Andris Piebalgs

Senior Fellow at the Florence School of Regulation, former European commissioner for development and for energy, and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Andris Piebalgs is Former European Commissioner for Development and Trustee of Friends of Europe

The UK’s referendum on EU membership is scheduled to occur on what for Latvians is the most anticipated day of the year. The 23rd of June is the day of the Latvian anniversary festival, which celebrates the summer solstice. The biggest midsummer celebration outside Latvia is in the UK, where around 100,000 Latvians live. There are a lot of songs during the celebrations, many of which sing for the prevention of disaster.

Such songs may prove most timely, as it doesn’t seem the UK’s referendum can be at all beneficial for the country’s relationship with the EU. A lot effort was made to meet Prime Minister David Cameron’s demands to limit immigrant workers’ access to social benefits, among his other proposals. Yet still, interest in the final agreement lasted for a very short time. Even Cameron himself is now focusing his campaign not on his deal but on the principle issue that it is in the UK’s interest to stay in the EU, calling into question why he would risk his country’s membership with a referendum in the first place. Many point to an effort from the Conservative leader to unite his party with the vote, but I expect they will stay divided regardless of the referendum’s outcome.

The decision to leave the EU would be a disaster for both the UK and the remainder of the EU. Politically, it would decrease the soft negotiating power of the EU in resolving tense political and security challenges around the world. And economically, the uncertainty created by leaving would have a negative impact on growth and employment, affecting the quality of life for millions of people. To avoid this, it is important that the Remain vote prevails. Nearly all of us on the continent have friends in the UK, and all of my friends are in principle on the Remain side but none are very active in saying so. It is important that each of them casts their vote in the referendum.

The failure of European countries to act together in the face of the refugee and migration crisis offers no encouragement for sceptics to vote Remain

It would be naive to assume that the Remain vote will prevail, especially considering the problems that the EU needs to resolve. The failure of European countries to act together in the face of the refugee and migration crisis offers no encouragement for sceptics to vote Remain. The debate that Cameron started about reform should therefore be continued more effectively. The EU has to be more efficient, more transparent, closer to the EU citizens and be seen as supporting rather than diminishing the sovereignty of its members states.

If the Leave vote prevails, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty describes the procedure for a country leaving the European Union. But it is too early to speculate how the relationship could look after that. Some examples of EU relationships with third countries exist, but it isn’t clear how much these cases will be helpful. A lot of time and effort will be needed to find a new agreement, and its approval will probably require yet more referenda, and not just in the UK. The conditions for possible transitional arrangements are difficult to imagine, meaning a lot of worry for my compatriots working or doing business in the UK. It seems that one way or another, all Europeans will be affected by the British decision in some regard.

The more I read about the referendum, the more I am convinced that the UK should stay in the EU. The UK is stronger in the EU, and the EU is stronger with the UK.

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