Monday 23 May 2016 – Should we stay or should we go?

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I received my polling card today for the European Referendum which is jut a month away.  The poll on the 23 June will decide whether the UK will remain as part of the European Union (EU) or whether we will leave and go it alone. If the electorate choose the latter, the Government will have to undertake painstaking and probably protracted negotiations with the EU for us to leave the Union.  This isn’t the first time the UK has held a referendum on this question – we did so in 1975 when the electorate chose to remain in what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC). As is the case today, the Government in 1975 (then Harold Wilson’s Labour administration, and now David Cameron’s Conservative administration) called for the UK to remain in the EEC. The electorate agreed by a healthy majority, with 67% voting to remain.  It is debatable whether it will be as decisive this time – assuming the electorate choose to remain.  I am in favour of remaining in the EU and will be voting as such on the 23rd June.

 

I have been trying to avoid the campaigns of the Leave and Remain camps over the last few weeks and months. They have become bitter and devisive with both sides using negative tactics, fear-mongering, exaggeration, propaganda and blatant lies to try and sway the minds of  those who haven’t decided which way to vote – or whether to vote at all.  It seems that just about everything that is going on in the country, whether related to society, economics or politics, is being manipulated and seized upon as evidence that we should Remain or Leave the EU (often by both sides at the same time).  Figures are bandied around relating to things like jobs dependent on the EU, the number of migrants who will “flood” into the country if we remain in the EU, and the economic cost of the EU to the British public.  It is impossible to know whether these figures are accurate or not – most seem to be estimates which are almost grabbed out of thin air to support the respective campaigns. For instance the Leave campaign suggest that membership of the EU costs the UK 350 million pounds a week, whereas it is closer to 250 million as they conveniently chose to ignore the rebates and other monies that come straight back to us. The Remain campaign, alternatively, throws around huge numbers of how many jobs could be lost if we leave the EU and the Chancellor George Osborne warns of years of recession if we leave.  The figures are almost meaningless as no-one can know the effects leaving the EU will have until we cross the Rubicon and have actually negotiated our way out of the Union – which could take several years.

 

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Above: Prime Minister David Cameron, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London.

The prominent issues, as I imagined they would be, have been the economic consequences, immigration/border controls, and the sovereignty of British Parliament and lawmakers. Sadly crucial issues such as security/terrorism have been largely ignored and the hugely positive role the EU has played in human rights, workers’ rights, development, and the environment have barely got a look in.  Predictably, the issues of border control and immigration have been particularly nasty, with racist overtones underlying much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric on the subjects.  Many have raised fears of floods of immigrants coming into the country if we don’t leave and take control of our borders. For instance, only this week, a Tory minister suggested that the UK would be powerless to stop Turkey joining the EU and we would therefore face the threat of millions of Turks coming unhindered to the UK.  David Cameron, the Prime Minister, was furious pointing out the fact that the UK, like all other EU countries, has a veto on the entry of any new country. Everyone knows that Turkey is nowhere near being in the position to be admitted to the EU even if all EU countries agreed – and they  don’t. We are opposed, Cyprus is opposed and other countries as well.  Turkey will not be joining the EU for the foreseeable future – if ever.  Yet this doesn’t stop the Leave campaign and the bigots within it exploiting ill-informed and plain wrong comments to whip up hostility to immigrants and therefore the EU. I’ve always felt that leaving the EU is not really going to make much difference to immigration – particularly illegal immigration (illegal immigrants don’t care if we are part of the EU or not).  We are not going to control our borders to the extent that the Leave campaign seems to think we can once we get out of the Union.  As part of our negotiations to leave, if it comes to that, we are still going to have to trade with Europe and we can’t really do that to the maximum if we pull up the drawbridge and stop people entering the country.  Whole industries in the UK, such as the NHS, are dependent on the influx of immigrants.

 

When this campaign began I imagined that Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), would be the most notable presence for the Leave campaign, but this position seems to have been taken – somewhat surprisingly – by the former Mayor of London and one time pro-European Union Tory, Boris Johnson. He has dominated the headlines in respect to the Leave campaign and has seemingly put his entire political future on the line by calling for us to leave the EU.  He has been spreading the lies and distortions with  the best of them and has been outrageously making statements such as comparing Hitler’s desire for a Europe-wide Empire with the goals of the European Union, even if he grudgingly admitted that the latter were doing so in “different ways.”  Boris has clear ambitions to become Prime Minister and he must believe that this could be his way into Downing Street. He may be right, but if we vote to remain in the EU then Boris is going to find it extremely difficult to backtrack and reconcile himself that we are not leaving the EU.

 

On the other hand, David Cameron has put himself in the incredibly precarious situation of being in favour of Britain remaining in the UK while at the same time allowing the Referendum to happen and allowing his MPs to campaign on either side.  Cameron insists he will remain Prime Minister whether we stay or go, but he may find his position impossible to justify if we vote to leave. He will be the Prime Minister who threatens the British economy (possibly dragging us back into recession) and future by taking us out of the EU – and this only two years after he risked breaking up the UK itself by allowing a Scottish Referendum on independence – which he opposed and which the Scottish people rejected in September 2014.  He says he only wants to be PM until 2020, when the next General Election is due. If we vote to leave the EU in a month’s time, Cameron could be out and Boris in Downing Street by the end of the year. Furthermore, if the UK votes to leave the EU and the public in Scotland vote largely to remain, then the calls for a second Scottish independence referendum will be ringing in Cameron’s ears as he’s chased out of Downing Street.  Scotland is clearly in favour of remaining in the EU which raises the possibility that they will politically drift even further away from the rest of the UK (and England in  particular) if Brexit is the UK’s choice on the 23rd June.

 

imagesOf course, if we do vote to leave, the UK is not going to fall into the sea and in most respects life for ordinary people will go on pretty much as before. However, it will have incredible consequences economically, politically, socially and in every other way imaginable. Some of these may become apparent quickly, such as companies moving out of the UK, others may take longer to surface – such as controlling immigration or our relationship with the rest of Europe and the United States. The key thing is that the future is uncertain if we choose to leave. This alone, in my opinion, makes the whole idea of a referendum crazy. Many agree.  Our European partners are calling for us to remain. The US wants us to remain and warns of consequences if we leave. Most businesses seem to want us to remain – uncertain as they are of the future outside the EU. Celebrities in their hundreds have called on us to remain and continue to benefit from the benefits of membership of the Union.  Yet on the 23rd June we could put the country’s future at stake. All the talking will be over, all the campaigning will cease and it will be up to each individual member of the electorate to put a simple cross on their ballot paper – should we stay or should we go? The nation will decide on the most important question put before the country in generations – if not ever –  and Europe and the world will watch with perhaps a mixture of curiosity, interest, and disbelief that we are putting ourselves through this for the second time in just over forty years.

 

I believe the British public will vote to remain. Yet if we do the issue is not going to go away. The Conservative Party, in particular in recent decades has had an obsession with Europe and our role within it.  Their divisions will only increase if we choose to remain – or leave as well. Many are already suggesting and hinting that they will campaign for another referendum if the electorate vote narrowly in favour of remaining.  The Remain and Leave camp members are going to find it difficult to reconcile to the reality that a decision has been made – whichever way it goes.  Many political careers seem to have been building to this one moment. How those politicians react  afterwards is anyone’s guess. If we vote to remain many are going to find it difficult to accept that and allow the UK to carry on as an active and important part of the Union. Will they try to thwart the goals of the EU further? Will they try to disrupt our relationship with Europe?  If we vote to leave are those on the losing side going to accept that we now have to get the best possible deal we can in our negotiations to leave and in the trade negotiations and other negotiations that will follow with the US and countries around the world who presently deal with us as part of the EU but will post-Brexit will need to deal with us as an individual nation?  Most importantly of all, how will the public react? Will they accept the decision – whichever way it goes – or will it simply intensify the growing divisions in our society? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And that is my point. Why throw ourselves into years – even decades – of political, social and economic uncertainty. Instead of holding a referendum we should be strengthening our ties with Europe. We should be working from the inside to make the changes that will make our relationship with the EU better.

 

For centuries, and from long before we stopped warring with the rest of Europe and  joined the EU and its predecessors, this country has struggled to reconcile itselfs to the fact that we are part of Europe and, although we operate above our status, we are not the world power we once were.  In today’s global world, with global economies and borderless trade, we cannot expect to thrive in the world by cutting ourselves off from the world’s largest trading block.  I fear that whether we vote to leave the EU or not next month Britain is not going to reconcile our hostility and mistrust of Europe any time soon.  That is the sad thing about this referendum, it is reinforcing our arrogant opinion of our world status, our stubborn belief that we are not really part of Europe and our dangerous insular opinion that we can go it alone. Isolationism and Nationalism – two isms that rarely end well.

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