PARIS – The possibility that Britain may exit the European Union is undeniable. For decades, prominent British politicians have propounded their disdain for Europe; as a result, euroskepticism in the United Kingdom has become entrenched. When the country holds a referendum on its EU membership on June 23, many voters may be unwilling to vote to remain.
Several factors have conspired to make a British exit, or “Brexit,” possible. Foremost is the rise of populism. After the UK ratified the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the British politician Nigel Farage left the Conservative Party and founded the UK Independence Party. Since then, he has made leaving the EU his life’s work (even though he takes full advantage of all the perks and privileges of being a member of the European Parliament). The effectiveness of his nationalist rhetoric is proof that the UK is not immune to populist demagoguery.
Another reason for europhobia’s hold on the British psyche is the country’s EU-obsessed tabloid newspapers, which are read by millions of people. Few men have done more to fuel anti-European frenzy than the Australian-American media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, owner of several newspapers and the UK’s most important private television news channel. In his book How Britain Will Leave Europe, former Minister for Europe Denis MacShane describes how former Prime Minister Tony Blair considered holding a referendum on adopting the euro, only to renounce the plan for fear that the “shadowy figure of Rupert Murdoch” would use his media empire to campaign against it.
Finally, Europe’s epochal migration crisis is not helping those trying to make the case for the EU. Farage has been quick to warn that “our migration crisis will get worse” should the UK remain in the union. He has also argued that the British people will be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks if the UK does not “leave the EU and to take back control of our borders.” (For France, which is currently struggling to do the UK’s job of controlling the border at Calais, this element of Brexit would be appealing.)
To be sure, many in the UK have been skeptical of Europe since the idea of unification was first proposed in the 1950s. But those campaigning for Brexit overlook the fact that Europe has become a truly open free market, something that the UK has always wanted, and that the UK was one of the few EU member states not to limit the entry of workers after the EU’s eastward expansion of 2004.
Much rides on Prime Minister David Cameron’s ability to persuade voters that staying in the EU is worth it. The most visible concession he was able to obtain in negotiations with the EU’s other 27 member states is an agreement to limit access to social benefits for citizens residing in a country different from their own. He has also agreed to a type of non-aggression pact with the eurozone, which pledges to respect “the rights and competences of the non-participating member States” in exchange for a British promise not to oppose the deepening of the economic and monetary union.
Should voters choose to leave, negotiating the terms of Brexit could take years. Whether the UK can maintain its access to the European market – which accounted for 45% of its exports and 53% of its imports in 2014 – remains an open question. And should Britain’s financial industry find its access to the EU curtailed, the City of London’s position as a global financial center could erode. Already, Douglas Flint, the chairman of HSBC, Europe’s biggest lender, has declared that the bank reserves its right to “move people between London and Paris.”
In a famous 1946 speech delivered at the University of Zurich, Winston Churchill called for the creation of a “United States of Europe” – but without the UK. “In this urgent work, France and Germany must take the lead together,” he said. “Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, [and the Soviet Union] must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live.”
Today, far from championing Europe’s right to live, the UK is putting it at risk. And, in doing so, it is putting its own economy in greater danger than any time since the end of World War II. As the continent faces the most difficult challenges it has seen in more than a generation, neither Europe nor the UK can afford such a self-defeating distraction.