LONDON – Hamlet’s question was “To be or not to be.” It was a more complicated question for him than that facing the British public on June 23 when they must decide in a referendum whether to stay in a “reformed” European Union as Prime Minister David Cameron wants and recommends, or to leave and “take back sovereignty” as a few of his Cabinet colleagues wish.
The Conservatives (Tories) promised in their election manifesto to renegotiate British membership of the EU and hold a referendum on whether to stay in or leave the EU. The aim was to satisfy a vocal minority of party supporters and torpedo the newly established and populist U.K. Independence Party.
A referendum was not legally necessary. It is not a tradition in a parliamentary democracy and was not wanted by any of the other parties. The Tories won the election not because they promised a referendum, but because the opposition Labour Party was not trusted.
Cameron was “hoisted with his own petard,” and in order to fulfill his election promises to renegotiate the terms of British membership he had to go through an exhausting round of negotiations involving visits to 27 capitals and marathon negotiating sessions. He showed great stamina and persistence in getting most of the changes he sought.
Some of the reforms are cosmetic and pander to the prejudices of part of the British electorate. They ought to persuade a few waverers, but most of the leaders of the “Out” campaign had made up their minds in advance and no concessions Cameron could extract from his counterparts in Europe would persuade them to vote to stay.
The case for Britain remaining in the EU is overwhelming. If Britain were to make the mistake of voting for “Brexit” there would be rejoicing in the Kremlin and among right-wing anti-EU parties across Europe. Britain and Europe would be damaged and less secure.
It is likely that there will be a large majority in Scotland in favor of staying in the EU. As the first minister in Scotland has said, a British vote for Brexit would trigger demands for a new Scottish referendum. The result of Brexit might indeed mean the breakup of the United Kingdom.
The argument over “sovereignty” is nonsensical. If a country joins any international organization or signs any treaty it cedes an element of sovereignty. It can, of course, withdraw from the organization by giving due notice and denounce or renegotiate any treaty, but the concept that Britain would regain “sovereignty” by leaving the EU is a chimera.
The British enjoy railing against bureaucracy and love to blame Brussels for any rules they dislike. But at least member states can try to get such rules changed.
The main populist issue for the Out campaign is immigration. They demand full control over our borders. This negates freedom of movement which is a fundamental principle of the EU. Some of the agitation over immigration is based on anti-foreign prejudice. Much is due to ignorance of the facts in particular of the economic benefits brought by immigrants. The anti-immigration lobby also overlooks the British diaspora in Europe which would suffer if Britain chooses Brexit.
The complex negotiations over work and child benefits that Cameron instituted and argued far into the night were an attempt to meet British irritation about the alleged incentive of British social benefits to workers from EU countries to come to Britain. In fact, they showed how petty some of the British complaints were.
The economic case for remaining within the EU should not need spelling out. The single market in goods and increasingly in services and energy have undoubtedly contributed significantly to prosperity. Perhaps after long and tedious negotiations Britain could following Brexit get a free trade deal with Europe, but the cost would be huge and the outcome uncertain. The Out campaign is living in cloud cuckoo land when it argues that Europe needs Britain more than Britain needs Europe and that negotiations would be easy. Many European leaders are irritated with the British and are in no mood to make concessions to a Britain which has rejected a toughly fought settlement.
Foreign investment has come to Britain partly at least because Britain was a member of the EU. Japanese and other foreign firms would not immediately withdraw from Britain if we chose Brexit, but they would take a long and hard look at their investments and new investments would be limited.
There is a sad ignorance of European and British history among the supporters of the Out campaign. Even the most cursory study of the history of the last 500 years shows that Britain is willy-nilly drawn into any European conflicts that may occur. Britain has played a key role in the various efforts to reestablish peace in Europe. Europe today is very different from what it was half a century ago, but nationalist forces are still vociferous. Britain can best contribute to the peaceful development of Europe by remaining in the EU, not as a bit player outside the circle.
It would be irresponsible and selfish to leave when Europe faces very difficult issues such as the Russian threat to Ukraine and the Baltic States, a migration crisis of unprecedented proportions and a threat to peace due to friction between Turkey and Russia.
Responsible European leaders have urged Britain to remain a leading member of the EU. So have our American friends and allies from President Barack Obama down. Some of the Out group have expressed resentment against such “foreign interference” in a British decision. This is absurd. Every country has the right to warn its friends against dangerous decisions.
The Out proponents would be among the first to be worried if there were a revival of isolationism in the United States, though they are in effect British isolationists who despite their declarations of patriotism are working for the decline of Britain’s influence and prosperity.
Hugh Cortazzi was the U.K. ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.