Brexit: good riddance or a new Europe?
Today is the day! German Chancellor Angela Merkel says British voters will decide “Europe’s destiny” on this day. Others in the European Union cry “good riddance” to a country that was never a part of Europe at heart.
Whatever the British decide, the EU will never be the same again. It may not break up or weaken significantly if Britain leaves.
But even leaders most dedicated to European unity can no longer deny that its core treaties and principles – now between 30 and 60 years old – need thorough review and reform. In essence, that concurs with the view of successive British governments.
The great irony is that David Cameron might never have stepped on the slippery slopes of referendum had he not faced near rebellion by euro-sceptics in his own Conservative Party in 2013.
He probably thought that promising an in-out referendum on EU membership could win the 2015 general election for him. And it did. But it turned into a cancer that has now spread beyond anything Britons or Europeans could have imagined.
EU economies had not yet sunk into debtor’s hell. When that happened, whether to remain or leave become full of portent.
Then the 2015 Syrian refugee deluge hit Europe’s shores and frontiers even as other misery-stricken people left Africa to escape wars, awful governance and denial of human rights.
Suddenly, Brexit rose as a real alternative in the minds of many British voters, most of whom had seen it only as an eccentricity of fringe anti-Europe Tories.
The good thing about the referendum is that it will put Britain’s long ambivalence to rest. If the Remain camp wins by a decent margin, euro-sceptics will lose steam for a long while. If the Leave camp wins, the matter of Britain’s commitment to Europe will be settled once for all.
In either case, it will allow other Europeans to press for reforms that their leaders have put off repeatedly, claiming that the founding treaties are inviolable.
Quoting treaty obligations to justify European actions no longer resonates even with the French, Dutch, Italians and Germans, who used to be the most fervent proponents of ever-greater union.
Increasing numbers of citizens feel too distant from EU institutions, including the executive European Commission, European Court of Justice and European Parliament, to make more sacrifices for Europe. Their alienation echoes the feelings of many in Britain.
They think Europe should do more for them than they for it. Gone are the days when there was so much appreciation among citizens for the prolonged peace and prosperity delivered by European unity that people placed more union above the erosion of their own sovereignty in national and local decisions.
The charms have waned of the creditable history of things that European unity — from the European Coal and Steel Community, through the European Common Market and European Economic Community, to the European Union – has delivered to the people in terms of economic security, education, prosperity and technological advancement.
The Brexit Leave or Remain referendum has crystallized discontents. It has revealed that the case for embracing European unity comes down to imprecise fears about economic and financial reversals.
The fears are argued from guesstimates inferred from a handful of overworked facts contorted to fit interpretations their handlers desire for building their preferred bogeys.
At the traditional European core is a wave from the heart. A person feels European or she does not. The rest is just talk.
There is no certitude that the disasters predicted by David Cameron camp will come to pass, since none can know the future.
Equally, Boris Johnson’s stirring calls to make today a declaration of Britain’s “independence” from overweening European meddlers is a fib.
Not even the US can claim to be independent in a globalized world. It, too, is bound in a web of treaties and international obligations as a Gulliver – just as Britain will continue to be whatever the Leavers’ make-believe.
Broadly, Johnson sees the EU as a pesky babble that should be shaken off. Cameron sees it as a hinterland upon which Britain could feed to wield influence around the world disproportionate to its size, wealth and technological prowess.
Most European leaders, including Francois Hollande of France and Italy’s Matteo Renzi, see Britain as a country that takes too much and gives too little toward European solidarity – although they are too cautious to say that out loud at this delicate time.
Britain stayed out of or dipped just a toe in almost every EU policy dear to other members, including currency, banking, social welfare, labor rights, transport, immigration, agriculture, industrial policy, taxation and investment regulations.
It took part whole heartedly in only one aspect – the single market that facilitates trade of goods and services among all EU members.
Its approach was seen as mercantilist rather than one of solidarity and mutual help among members. Yet, it had too much political clout to be ignored because of its special relationship with the US and influence among Commonwealth members spread across Africa and Asia.
So European governments made concessions to British positions because the conventional wisdom among leaders was that it was too valuable to offend. It represents 13% of Europe’s population and an economy among the top three.
Now the British might offend Europeans.