LONDON – The referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union or leave will be held June 23. Millions of words have been spoken and printed in the efforts by the advocates of both sides to woo the electorate. The debate has become increasingly acrimonious and personal. Assuming the decision to remain is agreed, the sooner it is all over the better.
The referendum was intended by Prime Minister David Cameron to take the issue of British membership out of British politics for a generation and settle a problem that was splitting his Conservative Party. It was promised in the party manifesto before the election last year. This was generally expected to lead to another coalition government in which the coalition partners might have prevented the referendum being called. There was no constitutional need nor any popular clamor for a referendum.
The referendum campaign has caused widespread uncertainty in the markets. It has also led to companies in manufacturing and services postponing investment decisions and deterred them from taking on additional staff. It has cost huge sums of money and caused valuable time to be lost. The economic damage caused by the referendum is a self-inflicted injury.
The outcome ought not to be in doubt. If voters were always rational in their judgments there would be an overwhelming majority in favor of remaining in the EU. The conclusions reached by the U.K. Treasury, the Bank of England, the Confederation of British Industries, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and every other reputable organization have been clear. A vote to leave would not only prolong economic uncertainty but would do serious damage to Britain’s economic prospects.
Political leaders of Britain’s friends and allies including U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have all advised strongly against British withdrawal, which would damage their countries’ interests. The only important leader who would welcome British withdrawal is Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Brexiters,” as the “Leave” campaign supporters are called, could also expect support from Donald Trump, the U.S. Republican presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right in France, and a few other dangerous mavericks.
The “Remain” campaign is officially supported by the government and by the opposition parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists) in Parliament and all have contributed to the campaign with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
The electoral rules in Britain require that radio and TV should be impartial. They have accordingly given the Leave campaign ample scope to promote their message. The owners of major national newspapers who exercise more sway than they should have in some cases have given undue prominence to stories and personalities criticizing the EU, and have thus given the Brexiters more publicity than they deserve.
Britain has hitherto had a tradition of maintaining joint Cabinet responsibility under which if a minister disagrees with agreed government policies he has to resign. But under pressure from ministers and Tory members advocating Brexit this tradition has been set aside until after the referendum. This has led to the bizarre situation in which for instance Michael Gove, the minister of justice, has publicly attacked the prime minister in whose government he serves and accused him of making false promises over immigration.
The most prominent Brexit leader has been Boris Johnson, the popular and populist former mayor of London who hopes to become British prime minster. With his shaggy mop of hair, he has been compared with Trump. Both seem incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction.
The Brexit campaign bases its appeal on emotion rather than reason. It promotes an unrealistic anti-globalization message and a romantic and outdated concept of Britain “standing alone” against the machinations of malignant forces in Europe.
Its call for a reassertion of British sovereignty allegedly undermined by the EU ignores the fact that when a country signs an international treaty it is agreeing to limit its sovereignty in respect of issues covered by the treaty.
The Brexiters assert that Britain would without difficulty be able to conclude free trade treaties with other countries despite warnings from other leaders that they would insist on hard bargains and despite many examples of long drawn out and fraught trade negotiations.
They assert that Britain is paying too much to belong to the EU. They ignore the amounts which Britain receives back from the EU and promise that if Britain leaves the EU they will use the funds saved to inject more money into the National Health Service. Brexiters are lavish in their expenditure promises but vague about where the funds are to be found.
They reject the likelihood that if English votes were to lead to Brexit, Scotland would demand another independence referendum that could lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. They also reject the idea that there could be problems for Northern Ireland if Britain left the EU while Ireland remained in. They also dismiss the likely difficulties which Brexit would cause for the large number of British people working and living in EU countries.
The main theme of the Brexiters is now excessive immigration from EU countries under the single market’s freedom of movement principle. The concessions that Cameron won on this issue during his negotiations with EU leaders are condemned as too little and too late. They demand that Britain should recover “full” control of its borders. They advocate an Australian-type, points-based immigration scheme, even though that scheme is intended to promote suitable immigration, not deter it. They also ignore the fact that without immigrants from the EU, the National Health Service would suffer serious staff shortages and British agriculture would be badly hit.
All warning of the dangers to the British economy if Britain were to vote to leave are summarily dismissed by Brexiters as “scare-mongering.”
The saddest element in the referendum debate, where the polls suggest a close contest, is the apparent extent of prejudice and ignorance among British people who should know better.
Hugh Cortazzi was Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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