Can Europe Make It?

The strange silence over Brexit

Despite the historic nature of a Brexit referendum, it has been worryingly absent during this election. Serious discussion in the press is almost non-existent.

Denis MacShane
9 April 2015

Europe House in Westminster, London. Wikimedia. Public domain.One of the strange silences in the current British general election is the sotto or non voce question of Europe. In less than a month the British people will make a binary choice. Either they vote to embark on the road of an In-Out plebiscite on Europe by sending back David Cameron to Downing Street or they elect Ed Miliband and there is no Brexit plebisictie and hence no immediate risk of Britain quitting the European Union.

The choice could not be more dramatic. At the end of a Brexit referendum, as I will demonstrate below, there is the strong possibility if not probability that under the pressure of populist, press-fomented attacks, the UK will quit the EU.

This will be the first time in British history that the nation will have left an international treaty organisation following a politically motivated plebiscite which hands power to off-shore media proprietors, to secretive financiers, and to single-issue pressure groups that call themselves parties but have no serious representation in elected bodies.

The consequences of a Brexit are enormous. Scotland, as the SNP leader and Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has indicated would demand a second referendum on independence as Scotland looks sure to vote to stay in Europe whatever the English decide.

The EU minus Britain would become dangerously unbalanced as Germany, already dominant, would become overwhelmingly hegemonic. The hopes of an EU security or foreign policy would evaporate as the UK is, other than France, the only major military and global geo-policy power-player with a seat on the UN Security Council and its Commonwealth network of English-speaking nations, including G7 and G20 member states.

The United States would lose its post-1945 major European partner and dependable ally. Britain would seek to hug Washington closer in exchange for losing its European influence but an isolated Britain would only further encourage the new policy-makers in America, often without European roots or links, who see the US looking to Asia and leaving Europe, including the Russians to fester in their endlessly bickering navel-gazing.

Business would be thrown off balance as the automatic access to the EU's Single Market of 500 million consumers would need to be renegotiated.  In the end the UK would have to accept the same status as Norway or Switzerland which entails accepting all EU rules, including free movement of citizens, and agreeing to allow the European Court of Justice to be the final arbiter. Alternatively a post-EU Britain could seek total independence and an end to interdependence and insist on its own trade and people movement policies which would require British citizens to seek visas to visit Schengen nations.

Yet despite the historic nature of this decision, it is a non-issue in the election. Serious discussion in the press is almost non-existent. Tony Blair tried to megaphone his worries about Brexit into the debate but Labour came up with the stronger front-page story about ending the status of so-called non-doms - 116,000 very wealthy people who live in Britain but do not pay tax on their wealth and income in the UK. This is part of what Richard Tawney called "the lues Anglicanum" - the reverence of wealth that is the hereditary disease of the English and for which no cure has been found.

In addition, Blair's appeal, powerfully crafted as it was, was seen through the prism of his contested status in connection with the Iraq war legacy and the manner in which he had made money since leaving office. Other former prime ministers obtained income from exotic sources but they were all Conservatives and thus to be praised for making money. But a Labour ex-PM is expected to become virtuous and give up worldly pursuits upon leaving office.

Kirstie Allsop, a broadcaster, attacked Blair in the Guardian for daring to question the virtue of a plebiscite, arguing, "Why would it not be a good thing to offer British people the chance to make the decision that is right for them?" Ms Allsop would be first to the barricades to protest a decision to hold a referendum on withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights and denounce a United States that held a referendum on staying in the UN but apparently a plebiscite which hands politics over to the money power of off-shore media proprietors and unleashes a barrage of populist, often openly xenophobic discourse against Europeans, especially if they are “immigrants", is OK by her.

To be fair, Blair himself let the EU plebiscite genie loose when he offered referenda on joining the Euro or endorsing the vapid 2004 EU Constitutional Treaty. Blair was playing guard-your-back politics with both decisions, so he is not on strong ground when he denounces Mr Cameron's referendum.

That said all of Blair's arguments are valid ones and anyone with a milligram of internationalism in their make-up should see just how dangerous this referendum proposal of Cameron is. Most of the press whose election agenda the BBC follows are owned by off-shore proprietors who oppose the European Union. They want Cameron to win because he follows their broader socio-economic agenda for the rich, of the rich, by the rich. The extremely limited rules of Social Europe or the impertinence of the European Council and Commission suggesting some limit on bankers' bonuses are intolerable for much of the ruling elites in London.

Some who know history understand that Britain's repeated cycle of trying to isolate first England, then Great Britain, finally the UK from the continent, preferring a deep-water strategy of disengaging from Europe, always ends badly. Time and again, Britain pays with blood what it could not achieve with policy from intelligent political presence and engagement in Europe. The anniversaries of Waterloo, the Dardenelles, and the liberation of Auschwitz might remind us of this fact (see Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1492 to the present day. Penguin Book 2013). But since we have stopped teaching history, our MPs and ministers know little of the past follies of their predecessors..

Politics is the art of the possible but winning David Cameron’s proposed In-Out referendum on the EU looks increasingly like mission if not utterly impossible, highly improbable.

Right now all the currents in public opinion and political-economic-social life are flowing against Europe. Polls vary on an unqualified exit from the EU but the new politics of identity and culture rather than ‘It’s the economy, Stupid’ all tend to soft as well as hard Euroscepticism.

The Conservative Party is now deeply impregnated with Euroscepticism. It has only been possible to be selected as a Tory candidate in the last fifteen years except by expressing negatives about Europe.

There is a rumoured group of pro-EU Tory MPs, but other than the splendid Ken Clarke MP now in his eighth decade, they keep themselves remarkably well-hidden.

UKIP scored 25 per cent of the votes in the European and local elections last year. Labour opposes a referendum but there has been no enthusiastic pro-European language from Labour since Tony Blair stood down.

The mass media is unlikely to reverse two decades of rubbishing the EU just because a referendum is held. Rupert Murdoch and the proprietors of other mass selling papers won’t change their tune. Some papers will oppose Brexit, but even the nominally pro-EU Guardian knocks or mocks the Commission and – with good cause – presents the Eurozone as a no-growth, high-unemployment nightmare.

The EU question has become fused with the most toxic of political issues – immigration. The In-Out referendum is nirvana for all the descendants of Enoch Powell who can now say Britain has lost control of its frontiers and allowed in too many immigrants thanks to EU membership.

The European Court of Human Rights is not part of the EU, but the Eurosceptics have cleverly opened a new front by attacking “Europe” for rulings that rob British judges and ministers of the unilateral right to decide prison or deportation policy.

What of business? To be sure the boss of Goldman Sachs spoke to the nation from Davos to tell the BBC Brexit would be terrible. The CBI says Yes to Britain staying in the EU, but only on the basis of unspecified reforms which may indeed be worthwhile but cannot be negotiated with 27 other member states in the months between May and Mr. Cameron’s 2017 plebiscite.

Business for Britain has listed 10 minimum conditions the Prime Minister must obtain including the end of free movement of EU citizens and the abolition of Social Europe. Like the British Chambers of Commerce with its eccentric call for a referendum in 2016 the outfits representing native rather than global businesses are setting conditions for staying in the EU that they know cannot be achieved.

No one in Europe wants Britain to go but no one thinks that demands for Treaty change and abolition of core EU values like free movement can be negotiated with 27 other governments and parliaments. And as Mr Cameron himself has said he will only recommend a Yes vote if he can bring back enough concessions to satisfy his Eurosceptic party. Top Tories like Boris Johnson or rising star Sajid Javid now say they are relaxed about Brexit.

There is a complacency in pro-EU circles that it will be alright on the night. That as in 1975 or in the Scottish referendum good sense will prevail. In 1975 everyone in politics, the press and business was in favour. In Scotland, a huge bribe and a promise of more power was needed to win the vote. Britain’s testy unenthusiastic membership of the EU and the combination of forces hostile to Europe all point to Brexit as voters will want to give a kicking to any London elites that tell them the EU is good for them.

Referenda rarely answer just the question asked. By 2017, Mr Cameron is unlikely to be popular and rejecting what he urges much as French voters defeated President Chirac in the 2005 referendum will tempt some.

So if Mr Cameron returns to No 10, prepare for Brexit. As over free trade or Irish Home rule, Britain is poised for one of its big historic changes of direction.

But you are unlikely to read about the historic importance of the decision in the press or see or hear it seriously discussed on the BBC, ITV or Sky this side of May 7.

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