The “deal” struck between David Cameron and his 27 fellow EU leaders is largely irrelevant to the UK’s Brexit debate and the outcome of the June 23 referendum writes Giles Merrit, Secretary General of Friends of Europe. The increasingly tense arguments within Britain are emotional and about local British politics rather than about the rational case for staying in or getting out of the European Union.
David Cameron’s negotiations in Brussels last week spanned an unusual three days, giving the impression of tough wrangling over details. That was because all the other EU governments needed to make it plain to their own publics that they had not ‘caved in’ to British demands without defending their own national interests. As to Cameron himself, he needed the talks to drag on so that he could not be accused when he returned to London of having an insignificant agreement imposed on him.
That could lose him a lot of ‘remain’ votes in the coming referendum. In short, all of Europe’s political leaders and top policymakers have an interest in building up the importance of the UK-EU agreement. None of them want its contents to be closely scrutinised, for fear that the cry will then go up: “the emperor has no clothes!”
Back in Britain, interest in the contents of Prime Minister Cameron’s hard-fought agreement lasted less than 24 hours. His deal was overtaken on Saturday morning when nine of his senior ministers, members of the Cabinet that shares responsibility for key decisions, announced that they will be campaigning to leave the European Union. That pushed detailed discussion of the economic and political factors of Brexit into the shadows – perhaps to return, but perhaps not. Much of the hostility to Europe within Cameron’s Conservative Party reflects fears of MPs in vulnerable constituencies that their narrow electoral support could be destroyed by the Brexit issue so they would lose their parliamentary seat in the next general election.
The spotlight moved definitively away from the deal in Brussels on Sunday night – less than 48 hours after the European Council had shaken hands on it – when Boris Johnson declared he will be supporting the ‘Leave’ campaign. He is Britain’s best-known and most popular politician, even though he has never held ministerial rank, and the risk is he will shift the balance of voting intentions towards Brexit. He is about to step away from his current post as Mayor of London, and his decision after long hesitation suggests he calculates that when David Cameron is forced to resign after a failed referendum, then he Boris Johnson will step straight into his shoes and enter 10 Downing Street.
The clearest message to emerge so far is that the Brexit discussion has had absolutely no, repeat no, relevance to the European Union’s wider need of serious reform. For tactical reasons, the UK government has expressed its discontent with the EU in purely Anglo-centric terms. Britain’s complaints about a loss of sovereignty, social benefits for immigrant workers and ‘ever-closer union’ have nothing to do with the major challenges Europeans must meet. Only London’s concerns about the ways economic governance is largely determined by eurozone countries has a wider importance, and even then the UK’s chief concern is to protect the pre-eminence of the City of London as a global financial centre.
This has been a mistake. Leaving the UK aside, the real problems that the EU must resolve are its growing unpopularity and its failure to tackle massive immigration coupled with threats to the EU’s own security. There is a widespread view, and it’s expressed in much of the European media, that the EU’s chief focus is the creation of irritating red tape, and that it fails miserably to deal with the big issues created in the wake of the Arab spring, Syria’s civil conflict and President Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Whether the answer is ‘more Europe’ and a determined strengthening of the EU’s democratic decision-making, or ‘less Europe’ is a major question that Europeans must tackle, and tackle without delay. The Brexit debate, however, has done nothing to focus attention on it.
If British voters indeed decide to pull out of the EU after more than four decades of membership, the political fall-out across Europe will be devastating. And it will also be wholly unpredictable. For the UK itself, Brexit would mean at least two years of complex and time-consuming wrangling about the small print of its departure. And experts warn that there would also be at least a decade of unpicking the legal details, during which Britain’s attractions as a destination for foreign investment inside the EU Single Market would be evaporating.
For continental Europe and the EU itself, the shock waves may well be equally damaging. Optimists suggest that Britain’s departure could be the long-awaited catalyst for radical change to a European Union that was suited to the 20th century and now flounders in what’s being labelled ‘the Asian century’. Pessimists, though, warn that the blow to the EU’s power and prestige could well be fatal.
They suggest that a “me too” process might begin in which other EU members copy the UK and demand a special deal, and that this could begin to unravel the whole concept of unity and solidarity. More middle-of-the-road observers fear that Brexit would trigger an unstoppable process of breaking the EU down into concentric circles that would group countries wishing to move forward at different speeds. Add to that the spectre of the Schengen free movement pact collapsing under the weight of massive refugee influxes and the outlook would instead be that of European countries moving backwards at varying speeds.
Brexit is far from just a British problem, and although this seems lost on UK politicians and public opinion, it’s becoming an issue with global ramifications that will affect the UK as much as the whole world.
This article by Giles Merritt is a contribution to our wide-ranging pan-European debate on Brexit. It was initiated earlier this year by a Discussion Paper authored by Dr Kirsty Hughes, an Associate Fellow of Friends of Europe.