British referendum on EU membership

Shahid M Amin

The British people will vote in a referendum on June 23, 2016 whether Britain remains in the European Union (EU) or leaves it. Dubbed as “Brexit” (standing for Britain and exit), a negative vote on continued EU membership will result in far-reaching consequences not only for Britain but also for Europe and the world. British membership of EU, formerly known as EC or the European Community, and previously as EEC or European Economic Community, aka Common Market) has had a very topsy-turvy history. Britain had stood aloof from the early moves towards European integration after the World War-II.
British nationalism, and an inability to grasp post-WW-II realities, kept Britain away from the new Europe where France and Germany, the old enemies, had decided to bury the hatchet. They became the main driving force behind integration. It took Britain some years to comprehend that it had been greatly enfeebled by WW II and two Super Powers (USA and Soviet Union) had eclipsed British power. When European integration began to produce results, Britain decided to apply for membership in 1961 but it was blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle, who viewed Britain as a Trojan horse for US influence in Europe. After the departure of de Gaulle in 1969, Britain renewed its bid for membership and after prolonged negotiations, it entered the EU in 1973. British entry in the EEC was more of a forced nature: if it was not done, the country would have lost influence in Europe and would not have shared economic benefits in the new Europe. But even after gaining membership, Britain continued to emphasize its Commonwealth and global interests. It was always seen as a “reluctant partner” of EEC: it never put forward any constructive ideas of its own for European integration and often obstructed the moves by other European countries to enhance integration. It never gave up its own currency nor adopted the Euro. It did not enter the Schengen visa regime for open travel.
Even years after becoming a part of the EU, British opinion has remained divided on the merits and demerits of membership. The present position is that within the ruling Conservative party, there are many “Euro-sceptics”. Old-style nationalism survives, with lingering memories of British imperial days and the centuries-old tradition of “splendid isolation” that had kept Britain away from entanglement in Europe, except when it suited British national interests.
More recently, after the induction of the poorer East European ex-Communist states in the EU, the policy of free movement within the community has led to a growing influx of migrants into Britain from Poland and elsewhere in East Europe. The fear of loss of jobs and ethnic prejudices have seen a rise in the relative popularity of fringe parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is a Euro-sceptic, right-wing populist party led by Nigel Farage. Though it has just one seat in the House of Commons, it has 22 members in the European parliament, the largest among all British political parties. UKIP regards British exit from the EU as the “core issue”. It sees a “serious existential crisis” in the “Islamification” of Britain. Its emphasis on Englishness negates the distinct culture of Scottish, Welsh and Irish peoples in the UK. The party’s growing popularity has come mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. While some of its members have sympathies with the UKIP, some other Conservatives want to steal the thunder of UKIP by pressing their leadership for Britain’s exit from the EU.
Coming under the pressure of Euro-sceptic backbenchers within his own party, Prime Minister David Cameron made an election pledge last year to hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017. This was done to keep the party united, though it is clear that Cameron himself wants Britain to stay in the EU. Recently, Cameron undertook a tour of some EU capitals to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU, e.g. placing more restrictions on the influx of migrants to Britain. His talks have not secured any material changes in EU policies though he is claiming a victory in this bid. Cameron has vowed to campaign to keep Britain inside a “reformed” EU, but several members of his own cabinet are campaigning for Brexit. The Conservative Party has decided to remain neutral in the referendum but the opposition parties, apart from UKIP, are strongly in favour of keeping Britain in the EU. The media is also largely supporting Britain remaining in the EU.
The advantages of leaving the EU are that it will lead to a saving of about 8.5 billion pounds as Britain‘s contribution to the EU budget. That is not a big figure and accounts for about 7% of the expenditure incurred on health services. The restrictions on influx of migrants are seen as an advantage, but the opposite argument is that Britain will be depriving itself of many immigrants who are highly qualified young people. Regaining of full sovereignty will give a boost to nationalism. Some argue that the EU has placed too many restrictions on business which would be better off otherwise.
The main disadvantage in leaving EU is that Britain will become the odd man out in Europe and will be relatively isolated. Its global importance will be adversely affected. The exit will be seen as a step against the spirit of times, which is regional integration. Britain’s influence in Europe would be less. Nearly all EU members want Britain to continue its membership. France has warned that in case of Britain’s exit, there will be “consequences”. President Obama has urged Britain to remain in the EU. The US fears that the “EU referendum is a dangerous gamble that could unravel with disastrous consequences for the entire continent.” British economic interests in Europe will suffer significantly.
According to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, London city alone will suffer badly in terms of jobs, business, exports and tourism. More than half a million jobs in London are directly dependent on the EU. Though opinion polls are making opposite predictions, probably the British people will decide with a narrow majority to stay in EU. That will be good for Britain and for the world.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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