Ragged battlelines drawn for Brexit

Ragged battlelines drawn for Brexit

Uncertainty over whether, in the June referendum, Britain will vote to stay in the European Union (EU) has led to a fall in the pound amid warnings from a range of businesses about the likely negative impact of a "Brexit". There seems to be little doubt that among businesspeople in Britain, especially in larger firms, pro-EU views predominate. In Britain as a whole, opinion appears to be more evenly divided and those who want to remain in the EU have a fight on their hands if they are to secure a convincing win.

The main problem for "In" campaigners may not be with any of the familiar arguments advanced by their opponents, but with something more basic: whatever they may say about the advantages of EU membership, none of them appear able to muster much enthusiasm for it. The EU remains an unloved institution - expensive, bureaucratic and accused of unwanted interference in the internal affairs of member states. It is more often favoured because it is not as bad as any alternative rather than for positive qualities.

This is not to deny that there are sectors of the population who are well aware of the advantages that EU membership has brought them: in Scotland, Wales and northern England, EU money has benefitted many - and they know it. Despite grumbles about EU subsidies to "inefficient French farmers", British farmers have, overall, gained from EU membership. The question is whether these membership beneficiaries will feel sufficiently motivated to turn out in force to deliver a decisive "In" vote. The pro-EU position of the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru, and generally pro-EU views of other political organisations in Scotland and Wales should at least ensure a strong "In" majority there.

When David Cameron argues that he has negotiated improved terms for Britain within the EU, and therefore supports Britain staying in, this is hardly a resounding endorsement of membership. It also seems less than honest since his personal instincts would have been in favour of EU membership even if he had failed to win any concessions in his talks with other EU leaders. Mr Cameron and half of his parliamentary party have long been convinced of the value of EU membership. But they are pitted against a resolutely anti-EU bloc of MPs, with strong grassroots Conservative support and now with a high profile figurehead in the form of Boris Johnson.

The Labour Party used to have a strong anti-EU left wing that included present leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But in the decades since Britain joined the EU, attitudes have changed. European institutions have tended to be protective of labour and human rights that British governments (mainly Conservative) have sought to curtail, in the view of some erstwhile opponents in the Labour Party. Many, including in the trade unions, have also been convinced that the economic benefits of continuing EU membership outweigh the disadvantages. Given the division in the Conservative Party, how resolutely the Labour Party supports continued EU membership and campaigns for it will probably be crucial to the final outcome of the June referendum. In this connection, the establishment of a Labour In for Europe campaign outside the broader Britain Stronger in Europe campaign should be a factor of strength for the "In" effort, helping it to mobilise constituencies that are strongly critical of aspects of the EU, but, on balance, favour membership.

The Liberal Democrats, long the most "pro-European" of the British parties, remain staunch proponents of remaining in the EU.

The lack of fervour among most of the "In" supporters and their sometimes apologetic tone contrasts with the zeal of the "Out" camp, whose supporters voice few, if any, doubts about their stance.

In 1973, when Britain joined the European Economic Community (as the EU then was), opponents came more or less equally from the left and the right, but since then, opposition to EU membership has become essentially a cause of the right, where it is fused with a more general anti-foreigner sentiment focused on fears of large-scale immigration. This convergence was crystallised in the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which was founded on the basis of opposition to EU membership, but - particularly as the last general election drew near - made greater and greater play of alleged threats from Muslim immigrants and the masses of Romanians and Bulgarians who were said to be awaiting their chance to descend upon Britain's job market and social services the moment that their countries became full members of the EU.

Conservative anti-EU campaigners are likely to focus on the alleged threat to British sovereignty posed by the EU, as well as some of the more absurd examples of EU micro-management. They will be less than candid about other aspects of EU membership that have annoyed them, such as the EU's working time directive that limits workers' weekly working hours to 48 (Britain opted out) or the 2013 EU agreement to cap bankers' bonuses at roughly one year's salary (although that could be doubled with the agreement of shareholders). Those are EU initiatives that most people in Britain would support.

It will be difficult to establish a united "Out" campaign. Anti-EU Conservatives and UKIP do not wish to lend each other credibility by joining forces on an equal basis. But conducting separate campaigns will not give the sort of added value to the "Out" cause as Labour In for Europe will to the "In" campaign, since they are aimed at much the same constituency. Neither welcomes association with the small extreme right groups that are also anti-EU.

The "In" campaign should be successful if it can put over its arguments with the confidence and effectiveness to sway the undecided and mobilise supporters to vote in force in the referendum, but it is up against a campaign that is strong because it taps streams of prejudice and fear that tend to shut out reason.

Should the EU break down under the challenges that it now faces, it is likely to be remembered like the Holy Roman Empire and the Weimar Republic earlier in Europe's history - fully appreciated for its virtues only when it is gone.

This article was first published on March 19, 2016.
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