Brexit The One-way Ticket to Paradise?

Cover Story

The Out Campaign will make use of recent migrant and Euro currency crises to expose the weaknesses of the EU and highlight the strengths of a UK without EU ties. The In Campaign will outline the benefits for UK business through access to the single market without tariffs, trade agreements, free movement of goods and people, easy travel, among others.

In his first broadcast radio interview backing the Out Campaign, Mayor of London, Boris Johnson remarked that leaving the European Union (EU) ‘is like the jailer has accidentally left the door of the jail open and people can see the sunlit land beyond’. The question one needs to ask is if the land beyond is as bright as Boris Johnson is hoping for and whether the British people will use the open door to escape the EU.

What is it About?

On June 23, 2016, the British public will be asked to answer a question that has long plagued the UK’s relationship with the EU: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave it?”

This is not the first time that British citizens have been asked to go to the ballot box to decide on the future of the UK within Europe. The United Kingdom applied for membership to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961, but was made to wait for a decade whilst the two historic powerhouses of Europe, MacMillan’s Britain and De Gaulle’s France clashed over a French veto of the former’s application. Although the UK formally joined in 1973, it only took 2 years for the question of membership to be brought back to the public in a referendum proposed by Wilson’s Labour Government.

The Wilson Cabinet used the same approach as the Cameron Cabinet with first renegotiating the terms of the British accession before putting it into the hands of the British citizens. Two out of three Brits preferred a UK within the EEC, and looking at the recent polls, it seems that the public consensus is not clear if Cameron’s fantasy of a repeat of 1975 will come true.

But why did Cameron put forth this referendum while he is campaigning for a UK within the EU? Cameron promised a referendum about the EU to provide an answer to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) that delivers most of UK delegates to Brussels, besides pleasing the Eurosceptic backbenchers of his own party. He vowed that he would campaign himself for Britain to leave the EU if no proper concessions were negotiated. According to Cameron, the new deal is the ‘best of both worlds’ and strengthens the special status of UK within the EU, although critics have some harsh words to offer. They argue that the deal is ‘watered-down’ and is a failure.

The deal has four key areas namely sovereignty, immigration, economic governance and competitiveness. On sovereignty, the UK will be excluded from an ‘ever closer union’ in the treaties. The lack of legal relevance of the term ‘ever closer union’ renders the impact as mere symbolic for the UK. Immigration includes two important aspects; firstly, UK will have an ‘emergency brake’ to limit in-work benefits for the EU migrants in the event of exceptional level of migration and secondly for child benefits for children living overseas, which will be recalculated to reflect the cost of living in those countries and not for the UK. Economic governance underlines that not all member states will have the Euro as their currency. The countries outside the Eurozone will be reimbursed for the EU funds used to prop up the Euro and will not be required to fund Euro bailouts.

On competitiveness, the deal states that the EU institutions and the member states will make efforts to strengthen the internal market by lowering administrative burdens. However, this is an extra for the British on top of their currently existing opt-outs. The UK is neither a member of the Euro or of the border-free Schengen area. Judicially, they were not a signatory of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and hold an opt-out from Justice and Home Affairs legislation. Economically, the UK gets a ‘rebate’ and an annual reduction on their EU budget contribution.

The Campaign

In a referendum, the voter does not have to make a choice out of different parties, thus there is no question of the usual political game of opposition blaming the current government and the local candidate vying for your vote. The persuasion is based on a single issue. The Out Campaign is supported by a large portion of the Tories and UKIP. The main opposition parties in Westminster namely Labour and Scottish National party (SNP) are not satisfied with the renegotiated deal but they support the pro-European wing of the Tories of a UK within the EU. The role of these two parties will be pivotal for the campaign as the Tories will talk in many tongues about Europe, and the usual party loyalty can not be a guideline to make a decision. Meanwhile, Labour and SNP are able to speak in one voice and the party identification can be a cue to vote for UK remaining a part of the EU.

The main element of the campaign will not be the renegotiated deal by Cameron or the level of satisfaction with the government, but more about the general attitude of the public towards the EU. The Out Campaign frontrunner Johnson formulated the key idea as follows: “To save the Brits money and to take back control”. The main points of this argument are costs of the EU membership, eroding national sovereignty, over-regulation and the (alleged) German dominance within the EU. The Out Campaign will make use of recent migrant and Euro currency crises to expose the weaknesses of the EU and highlight the strengths of a UK without EU ties. The In Campaign will outline the benefits for UK business through access to the single market without tariffs, trade agreements, free movement of goods and people, easy travel, among others.

The campaigns will have a major impact on the outcome of the referendum. This becomes clear if you take a look at the recent polls that indicate that a small margin of a certain percentage are for remaining within the EU over leaving the EU, while one out of five voters is not decided yet. The latter group will surely become the target of the campaigns over the course of the next few weeks. As the EU theme is very complex, the position of a favoured politician or a thought leader will be crucial in choosing sides in the referendum.

As we get closer to June 23 and with polls indicating different results every day, the campaign will intensify; every statement will be carefully thought out and analysed to bits by the media.

What if...?

If the referendum shows a majority in favour of leaving the EU, the only lawful way to withdraw would be by the rules for an exit set out in Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union. A unilateral withdraw will be a breach of international law, create a hostile environment and complicate talks of any new relationship with the EU member states post the withdrawal. As none of the member states has ever withdrawn from the EU, the process is uncertain and the outcome even more so.

If the British government notifies the European Council about their desire to leave the EU, a complex process of negotiations about the arrangements of withdrawing will begin. This is a one-way street, once a country officially reports their desire to leave, there is, according to the current treaties, no turning back. During the time of negotiations, the EU treaties will continue to apply to the UK until the withdrawal agreement enters into force or a two year period is passed since the date British PM Cameron notifies the European Council. In case, no agreement is made within this period, and no extension period is given (which has to be unanimously decided by the 27 remaining member states), the exit will take place automatically. This imposes pressure on UK to reach an agreement within the two year period, but as Article 50 does not specify the exact content of such an agreement, we can not be sure that the two years will be sufficient. If an agreement is reached, it still needs to be approved by a majority of 20 of 27 member states and by simple majority of the European parliament.

The agreement needs to tackle a lot of different subjects such as new trade agreements, aspects of the common market as free movement of services and people, immigration and so on. The new agreement will touch on trade and in broader sense - cooperation. It will involve powers on the EU level as well on the national level. This means that the agreement will require parliamentary approval by each of the 27 National Parliaments except for Malta. Furthermore, half of the national parliament could request a referendum on the trade deals if they consider this to be essential. Joining the EU is complex with the many requirements for modifying administrative and institutional infrastructure; leaving it means de-worming decades of integration, which will be no easy task.

In case, the Brits favour the Eurosceptics in June, the EU will have to overcome its next crisis. The European integration process has been under a lot of pressure in recent years, which has led to significant focus on the ongoing stability of the EU. The Eurozone crisis showed the frustration among member states, while the bail-out of Greece divided the strong and weaker economies within the EU. The current refugee crisis shows that the solidarity between the member states is breaking down. The central European countries joined forces under the ‘Visegrad group’ and are opposing the EU common refugee policy with its mandatory refugee relocation system. On top of that, Euroscepticism is on the rise in every member state. Anti-EU parties had a major win with the European parliament elections in 2014 and we are seeing the voter punishing parties with pro-EU policies, as witnessed with the recent German state elections where Merkel’s open-door refugee policy was opposed. The atmosphere of disillusion of the EU amongst the electorate in European states may render political parties to be wary of taking a pro-EU position. In the event of a Brexit, countries in favour of more supranational Europe will be opposed to those who are in favour of a more intergovernmental approach. UK leaving Europe could be the one crisis that may lead to more countries running to the exit before the proverbial house (or jail) burns down.

This, not only within Europe, but also within the UK, would cause a lot of tension. The divide within the conservative party – that has been exposed in the media microscope by the Cameron-Johnson battle - could destroy the party. It would be hard to see Cameron stay in office as leader of the conservative party and prime minister after a defeat in the referendum. A coup by Johnson, supported by Eurosceptics, for the leadership of the Tories would be a logical consequence. A Brexit would have consequences for Scotland as well. The Scottish National Party, which won 54 out of 59 seats with the general elections, said that Brexit would undermine the basis on which the Scots voted to remain part of UK and for that reason will seek another referendum. A Brexit could even undermine the stability of the peace process in Northern Ireland as it puts pressure on cross-border bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein has already announced that in case the Brits decide to leave the EU, citizens from North Ireland should have the right to vote for retaining a role in the EU and unification with Ireland. In case a majority of the population in Northern Ireland votes in favour of remaining within the EU and especially if the vote partition between the Catholic and Protestants are not parallel, this would put major pressure on the unity of the UK.

On June 23, the Brits will have a meeting with history that will define their path for the following decades, which will not only change their foreign policy but their daily lives as well. Will it be a divorce or a renewal of the vows? Either way, the scars of the complicated marriage of the last 43 years will have a major impact on how the divorce will be settled or how much trust there is for a new commitment.

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