With the spectre of referendum looming large in the UK as David Cameron increasingly realises the consequences of a largely UKIP-reactionary promise, it is important to consider the far-reaching implications of the current buzzword of the British political debate – “Brexit.” These range from the obvious – the health of the UK economy to the less immediately obvious – the Northern Ireland peace process.
The Brexit camp often offers a quite simplistic vision of how leaving the EU would lead to an ideal state of affairs. In this vision, Britain is no longer constrained by EU regulation and bureaucracy and is allowed to prosper on its terms, seamlessly setting up trade deals across the world. The problem with this view is evident. The much-criticised regulation is exaggerated, Britain is one of the rich world’s least regulated countries and furthermore much of the regulation is Britain-led, with a new living wage, planning and environmental laws an example of such. Latterly trading without being a member of the EU is problematic. The US-UK “special relationship” would undoubtedly be compromised with the US eager for the UK to stay within the EU, in addition to emerging countries such as India and China, undermining the view that Britain can retain its clout outside of the EU. This is not to deny that there is a possibility of Britain prospering for being outside the EU. For instance, the think tank Open Europe stated that Britain could be better off by 1.6% of GDP in 2030. One of the conditions for this, however, is that it manages to enter into liberal trade arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world, the likelihood of which is small.
The Brexit campaign also often points to countries such as Switzerland and Norway as the proof that a country can survive without the EU. But it is worth considering what Nikolai Astrup, a Norwegian Conservative MP told the UK’s Confederation of British Industry in 2013: “If you want to run Europe, you must be in Europe. If you want to be run by Europe, feel free to join Norway in the European Economic Area.” tweet In this way, it is easy to be excited about the change and the prospect of sovereignty and independence, but it is harder actually to consider the ramifications after the deed is done. Simply put the vision is alluring but the reality threatens to be grim. The reality is that the EU would allow full access to its single market only in return for adherence to rules that Eurosceptics are all too willing to brush under the carpet, i.e. a heavy payment to the EU budget and the free movement of people.
Immigration is often cited as a reason for Brexit, with UKIP’s 2015 manifesto declaring that leaving the EU would allow Britain to “take back control of our borders.” However, more people come to live and work in the UK from the rest of the world than from within the EU. Furthermore, Norway takes over twice as many EU migrants per capita as the UK despite being outside of the union.
Another myth is that the EU needs Britain more than Britain needs it. This is the sort of rhetoric that falls short when one considers that the EU takes almost half of Britain’s exports while Britain takes less than 10% of the EU’s. To put it plainly Britain’s reliance on the EU is understated.
What is also understated is the deal David Cameron reached in redrawing the terms of Britain’s EU membership. While the reforms Mr Cameron attained in his February deal were modest, importantly one of those was a guarantee that non-euro countries would not be discriminated against by the substantial euro-zone block. In this way, Britain maintains its somewhat ideal position in the EU, able to influence proceedings while avoiding the seemingly never-ending hangover of the much-maligned currency. This is because of the assurances that British taxpayers won’t have to contribute towards bailouts of countries facing Eurozone crises and that British businesses will be treated equally despite the usage of the pound. In this way, the grievances of the Brexit camp feel excessive given Britain’s relatively ideal circumstances within the union.
Moreover, the best-case scenario of Brexit pales in comparison to the potential pitfalls. An incredibly likely consequence is that Scotland will demand another independence referendum should Britain leave the EU. While it is misleading to state that Scotland does not share a sense of Euro-scepticism, it wants reform, not an exit. Brexit then would be the straw that broke the camel’s back and surely bring victory to the Scottish independence movement. If it were assumed that only Scotland would face upheaval, one has to realise that Northern Ireland would certainly do also. This is due to the importance of Ireland and the UK’s EU membership with regards to the NI peace process. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would automatically become the glaring “back door” for entry into the UK from the EU, thus causing the necessity for stringent passport checkpoints and customs controls on one of the most politically sensitive dividing lines in the country. Compromising a situation that the UK had worked tirelessly on would only undo several years of diplomatic toil.
Ultimately trying to envision accurately what will happen is very difficult because with three months to go the result could certainly swing either way. At the minute polls suggest that the Remain camp hold a slight edge but a shock such as a terrorist attack, a further Eurozone crisis, or an extenuation of the issues in the response to refugee crisis could quite conceivably shift public opinion and result in Britain leaving the EU.
The ramifications of an exit from the EU are so expansive and potentially threatening that seemingly the best decision for Britain is to remain a member. While the EU is far from perfect, Britain has a relatively good deal compared to most EU countries and it is well placed to change the EU as a member than if it is out of it. This is something that is historically true with Britain’s reforms in the past where Britain can take partial credit for the EU having less wasteful agricultural and fisheries policies than its early 1970s beginnings. To wrap up Brexit is a gamble that is likely to backfire – possibly dramatically so – and therefore, I believe it is better off inside the union.
By Cheran Gobiratnam