Commentary / World

The folly of a British 'Brexit'

by Hugh Cortazzi

Sir John Major, the former Conservative Party prime minister, recently warned against falling into the trap of what he ironically termed “splendid isolation,” or a British exit from the European Union, known as the “Brexit.”

The European Union is not a perfect organization (what is?) and could benefit from reform, but think back to the first half of the 20th century and previous centuries when Europe was devastated by wars caused by nationalism, ideology and greed. Europe has many problems, but war between any of the EU states is now unthinkable.

Britain did not suffer occupation, but its cities were bombed and it only just managed to survive in 1940. Britain played a leading role in the formation of NATO and with France and Germany it is one of the three most populous and economically advanced countries in Europe. Its economy and culture are indissoluble from those of Western Europe. A British exit from the EU would gravely damage Britain and would be a serious blow to the union.

Why have we reached a position in which such a disastrous decision is possible? One reason is British politics.

The Tories unexpectedly won a small majority in the general election, not because the electorate liked them, but mainly because voters did not trust Labour on the economy.

The Labour Party has since further reduced its chances of regaining power by choosing a new leader from the far left, who has failed to gain the confidence of members of his own party in the House of Commons.

The Tories were not elected on an anti-EU ticket, but in the run-up to the election were frightened that their position might be undermined by the apparently growing influence of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) that campaigned for Brexit. They accordingly moved toward Euroskeptic policies and promised a referendum on British membership. In fact UKIP only won one seat and has since almost imploded, but Prime Minister David Cameron had committed to a referendum and could not go back on his promise.

He and his friend George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, recognize that Brexit would seriously damage the economy and undermine their hold on power. Accordingly, to win the promised referendum they have had to demonstrate that they have achieved sufficient concessions from other EU states to justify staying in.

Some of Cameron’s demands should not present too much of a problem. He wants an opt-out from the EU’s stated aim of ever closer union. He wants to ensure that the countries in the eurozone will not take steps damaging to the interests of countries not in currency union in particular to British financial services in the City of London. And he seeks less bureaucratic interference from Brussels and further steps to improve the single market.

The most difficult British demand relates to freedom of movement, which is regarded as a key principle of the EU. The British population has been growing fast, partly as a result of immigration. This has strained some public services and exacerbated the housing shortage.

The Tories, who have failed to keep their promise to restrict immigration from non-EU countries (a policy that has been damaging to many British interests), want to restrict immigration from EU countries by cutting the benefits available under the British tax system, but this would be discriminatory and would contravene EU principles.

At a recent European summit in Brussels, Cameron set out his demands and except on the principle of nondiscrimination received a relatively sympathetic hearing from the other politicians who must also satisfy their electorates. Efforts are now being made by European leaders to find ways of enabling the British prime minister to show that he has gained enough to justify Britain staying in the union. He would like his promised referendum to take place sometime in 2016 (his vow is for a referendum by 2017).

So far so good. The costs of Brexit and the arguments why Britain should remain in the EU are cogent and should be conclusive. But referenda are not always decided on a sober cost-benefit analysis. Prejudice and emotions play a part and unfortunately there is a good deal of anti-immigration rhetoric in Britain. The cry of “Why are foreigners taking our jobs and keeping wages down?” may not reflect reality, but it resonates in the British pub.

Sir John Major reminded listeners that opinion in Scotland was firmly in favor of staying in the union. If Britain voted for Brexit, the Scots would demand and could not be denied another referendum on independence. Brexit would thus mean the breakup of the United Kingdom.

The advocates of Brexit who seem to think it would be easy to negotiate favorable terms for trade with the EU and that Britain can prosper by increasing its trade with, and attracting investment from, the U.S., Japan and the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are not living in the real world. The world does not owe Britain a living and would punish us for such a foolhardy step. We would become “Little England” an outcast isle on the periphery of the European continent.

Major as British prime minister used to call some of his anti-EU colleagues “the bastards.” Cameron, who should never have promised a referendum, has to deal with a party in which the tail (the minority of Tory “bastards”) who are living in “cloud cuckoo land” seems to be wagging the dog. As Kipling wrote:

We know that the tail must wag the dog, for the horse is drawn by the cart,

But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: “It’s clever, but is it Art?”

Hugh Cortazzi was the British ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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