Another referendum on ‘togetherness’

Does Great Britain want to stay in the European Union or not?

No sooner has the United Kingdom completed one historic referendum than another looms. On September 18th 55% of Scotland’s residents over the age of 16 said ‘No,’ they did not want to live in an independent country. They wanted to remain citizens of the UK. The 307-year-old union between the lands north and south of Gretna Green was thus preserved, at least for a while.

Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, said, “I'm delighted. It would have broken my heart to see our United Kingdom come to an end.” The Scottish referendum however may not be his last.

If Cameron’s Conservative Party wins the next general election scheduled for May 2015, he has pledged to hold another referendum in 2017 on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union.

Neither of the other two major political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, is in favour of an EU referendum unless there is a further significant shift in sovereignty to Brussels.

Like the Scottish vote before it, the eventual EU referendum would offer voters only two options: ‘Yes,’ to get out, or ‘No,’ to stay in. There will be no ‘Yes, if...’ option, although Cameron has promised he will renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership before the referendum, a move clearly designed to say to Brussels, “Give us back some sovereignty, or we will leave.”

Brussels may not take kindly to such tactics. The EU will not want to make leaving seem easy, even though the British are not currently much loved in Europe. More than half of French people polled recently said they wanted Britain out of the EU – the only member state to have a majority in favour of such a view. And the influential German publication Der Spiegel wrote recently that “the British are endured rather than loved on the Continent.”

The referendum, announced in 2013, was largely a political response to the rise of UKIP, the UK Independence Party, set up in the 1990s specifically to take the country out of the European Union. It stuttered for years until suddenly, in 2014, it took 27.5% of the vote in British elections for the European Parliament, the highest percentage of any party – and a sharp rebuke for Cameron’s Conservatives.

UKIP’s popularity reflects a groundswell of British hostility towards the EU and its increasing involvement in daily life. Insisting that convicted criminals serving time in prison have the right to vote, for instance, or interfering with the way financial firms in the City of London go about their business: two themes that have aroused particularly fierce opposition.

Beyond that, a large part of the British population is still congratulating itself for the country’s wisdom in not adopting the euro and remains firmly wed to the pound sterling. Still, polling has consistently shown a majority in favour of continued EU membership if terms were renegotiated - this in spite of the fact that just what these new terms might involve is as yet unspecified.

Take out renegotiation though and opinions fluctuate wildly. In May 2014 one such poll found 54% of the British in favour of staying in and 37% wanting to leave the Union. A month later another (equally reputable) poll found the opposite – 37% in favour of staying and 48% for leaving. Ironically, the Conservatives’ chances of winning the next election - and so of holding a referendum on the EU - have been diminished by the “No” vote in Scotland. They have only one Scottish MP (out of 59) in the Westminster parliament while the opposition Labour party has 41.

In a UK without Scotland, Cameron’s party would have been clear favourites to win the 2015 elections. Now the outcome is less certain.

On the other hand, the chances of an eventual referendum going in favour of staying in the EU are probably enhanced by Scotland’s decision to stay in the UK, since the Scots are generally more pro-Europe than the rest of Britain.

Either way, an independent Scotland held out the possibility of both the remains of the UK and the Scottish nation state leaving the EU – Scotland because it would have had to reapply to be a member and could have found the requirement for new states to join the euro unpalatable. (The separatists always wanted to hang on to the pound – and the Queen…and the BBC…and the National Health Service, which made some people wonder what sort of independence it was they had in mind.)

Economic arguments did not win the case for union in Scotland, and they are not likely to do so for the EU. Most analyses show that, whether the UK is in or out, continued membership would have only a marginal effect on GDP. For one thing, the balance of trade has shifted dramatically over the past decade. Whereas in 2002 59% of the Britain’s trade was with the EU, by 2012 that figure had fallen to 48%. There has been a sharp shift in potential growth away from the developed world towards emerging markets.

In the final analysis, the decision will be a political one – in the 41 years since the country first joined what was then the EEC, have enough Britons fallen a little bit in love with the idea of being Europeans? Or rather, are they still convinced that their own parliament in Westminster knows what is best for them?

No member state has ever left the EU, and it was only in 2009 that the means to do so voluntarily were laid down in the Lisbon Treaty (article 50). States exiting the EU enter terra incognita. Fear of the unknown was a powerful force in the Scottish referendum; it is likely to influence British voters equally powerfully in any future EU referendum. Don’t count Britain out just yet. 

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