Home > 2016 > Brexit: Will it be a Good Proposition for the UK and EU?

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

Brexit: Will it be a Good Proposition for the UK and EU?

Saturday 12 March 2016

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

Britain faces a crucial test for its role in European and world affairs for a generation to come when the UK votes on an in-out referendum on June 23 to determine whether it will continue to be a member of the European Union which it joined in 1973 after a prolonged and agonising debate about its place in Europe. Long-term UK watchers will feel a sense of de- ja vu as the present situation is almost a replica of what happened in 1975 when the Labour Government of Harold Wilson ‘renegotiated’ the UK’s terms of entry into the then European Community and put the ‘renegotiated’ terms to the British people in a referendum with the same kind of endorsement as that of the present British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Wilson and the Labour Party had opposed the terms of entry negotiated by the then Conservative Government of Edward Heath on the somewhat specious pretext that these terms were not in British national interest. It was subsequently hotly disputed by British scholars as to whether the terms ‘renegotiated’ by Wilson were any better; it was held then that the so-called improvements in the terms were more cosmetic than real. Nevertheless, the British voters approved the recommendation of the Labour Government to stay in the European Community with 67 per cent in favour and 33 per cent opposing the move.

The ‘renegotiated’ terms obtained by Cameron are under close scrutiny as to whether they merited a resurrection of the 66-year-old question of Britain’s place in Europe. The history of the evolution of the British attitude towards and its participation in the European integration movement since the end of the Second World War has been a chequered one which is too long to be recounted here. Suffice it to say that having initially balked to respond positively to the Franco-German initiative to participate in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) project, which ultimately culminated into the formation of the European Economic Community (EEC), Britain was forced to change course when it found out that its trading and commercial interests were being hit by the EEC’s common External Tariff and the British Commonwealth was no longer a viable market for British manufactured products. The UK’s entry into the EEC was blocked twice by the then French President, General De Gaulle, ostensibly on the ground that the UK’s commercial interests were not compatible with those of the Community’s six founding member-states—France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. However, the real objective of De Gaulle was to prevent the arrival into the EEC of a country which could prove to be a rival of France, the de facto dominant force in the Community at the time.

The UK finally gained entry into the EEC in 1973 under more favourable circumstances. However, the divisive nature of the issue was never resolved and the history of British membership of the EEC—subsequently renamed European Union (EU) in 1993—has been one of constant wrangling between the UK and its EU partners even as the Union enlarged itself from the original six to the present 28. As a consequence the UK earned the sobriquet of an ‘awkward’ partner as wrangling continued under various British Prime Ministers—Conser-vative as well as Labour—on issues such as the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy—which is an elaborate farm support project that never benefitted the UK—the British contribution to the EU Budget and most fundamentally on the issues of the Schengen single border and the European single currency project, the Euro. The UK remains outside the two crucial EU projects which ensure a borderless Europe of 26 of the 28 member-states while the latter created a ‘Eurozone’ where the common currency prevails. Besides, the UK never subscribed to the European dream of ‘an ever closer union’ which, many in Britain feared, would turn the European Union into a super-state consigning British sovereignty and identity into oblivion.

In British domestic politics Europe has always been a divisive issue—both in terms of party politics and public opinion. The two major political parties, Conservative and Labour, have both been wracked by bitter divisions between the pro-EU and anti-EU factions. These divisions stem from the fundamental and ultimate question—is Britain ‘European’? As Anthony Eden, then British Foreign Secretary, said in a speech at the Columbia University on January 11, 1952, “Britain’s story and interests lie far beyond the continent of Europe. Our thoughts move across the seas to the many communities in which our people play their part in every corner of the world. These are our family ties. That is our life. Without it we should be no more than some millions of people living on an island off the coast of Europe, in which nobody wants to take any particular interest.” (Anthony Eden, Full Circle, London, 1960) It is far from clear if today’s Britain has been able to move away from this British dream which was so powerfully articulated by Eden 64 years ago.

The present spectre of ‘Brexit’ stems from this fundamental British inability to reconcile with the realities of today’s world when some significant segments of British politicians and the public are still submerged in the hallucination of Britain’s past ‘greatness’. David Cameron is only replicating what Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, the former British Prime Ministers, were able to extract from their EU partners of the day—largely cosmetic concessions which will demonstrate that they are able to stand up to the ‘European bullies’ in defence of British interests. All British Prime Ministers have played to the domestic gallery when it comes to Europe.

Cameron raked up the issue of British membership of the EU for two reasons besides other domestic compulsions mentioned above. First, He has been objecting to the prevailing EU rule of subjects of any EU member-state enjoying the automatic right of claiming social security benefits after moving to another member-state in the event of not being able to secure employment on arrival. Unemployment benefits enjoyed by British and other EU nationals in the UK are substantial which comprise weekly payouts to the spouses and for each of their children. Besides, they are entitled to subsidised accommodation and free education for their children in state schools. Secondly, Cameron wanted to ensure a Treaty reform which will guarantee that the UK will never subscribe to the core EU objective of “an ever closer union” implying a possible emergence of a European super-state.

The deal that was announced after intense negotiations in Brussels on February 19-20, is a compromise on both sides. David Cameron was unable to secure everything he wished. The principal elements of the deal are: “emergency brake” on migrants’ in-work benefits for four years when there are “exceptional” levels of migration. The UK will be able to operate the brake for seven years. Secondly, child benefit for the children of EU migrants living overseas will now be paid at a rate based on the cost of living in their home country—applicable immediately for new arrivals and from 2020 for the 34,000 existing claimants. Thirdly, The amending of EU treaties to state explicitly that references to the requirement to seek ever-closer union “do not apply to the United Kingdom”, meaning Britain “can never be forced into political integration”. Fourthly, The ability for the UK to enact “an emergency safeguard” to protect the City of London, to stop UK firms being forced to relocate into Europe and to ensure that British businesses do not face “discrimination” for being outside the eurozone. Cameron also had to make concessions. He had originally wanted a complete ban on migrants sending child benefit abroad but had to compromise after some Eastern European states rejected that and also insisted that existing claimants should continue to receive full payment. Secondly, on how long the UK would be able to have a four-year curb on in-work benefits for new arrivals, Cameron had to give way on hopes of it being in place for 13 years, settling for seven instead.

However, the question that remains to be answered is whether David Cameron will be able to repeat the feat achieved by Harold Wilson way back in 1975 when the British people gave a resounding verdict in favour of Europe. A lot of water has gone down the Thames since then. As expected, Britain is deeply divided this time with the latest opinion polls suggesting 38 per cent favouring a ‘Brexit’ and 37 per cent favouring staying in the EU. Cameron’s Cabinet is also divided with 17 Ministers in favour of Britain staying in and five opposed. The Mayor of London Boris Johnson, a potential candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party after Cameron stands down at the end of the present Parliament, is also opposed to Britain staying in. The scenario for the upcoming referendum has drastically changed since 1975 and Cameron might find converting a largely sceptical British public into accepting the deal he has worked out with the EU an uphill task.

Since it was Cameron who was responsible for letting the genie out of the bottle, it is he who has to show that he can now deliver on his promise to convince the British public that he got a good deal for Britain. Whatever the rabid anti-Europeans might say, Britain has a great deal at stake in terms of trade, investments and jobs, not to speak of political influence in the world, in remaining in the EU which is also anxious to keep London in as a ‘Brexit’ might trigger departures of some other members who are also unhappy with the situation in the bloc. June 23 will be an important date for the UK as well as the EU.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a former Professor of International Relations and a former Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Political Science, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.