A perfect storm is brewing and it could take Britain out of the European Union. Right now it’s hard to see what, or who, will thwart that scenario. For months I thought Brexit was unlikely. Now, I’m alarmed. The push factors are piling up. It’s not just that the gap between Remain and Leave has been narrowing in opinion polls — perhaps the polls need to be taken with a pinch of salt. What’s so worrying is that developments in the UK and events beyond it are together setting the stage for a train-wreck. For Britain and EU alike, Brexit would be a tremendous loss. Yet a whiff of fatalism in the air, or at least a careless passivity, makes the situation especially dangerous.
To seriously contemplate Brexit is almost a taboo — there’s a great deal of comment, but few see it as a reality. Officials in other European states refrain from making open statements: partly for fear of negatively influencing the referendum, but mostly because they are in denial. A friend at the EU commission recently told me that its staff are banned from organising any meetings to discuss the possible effects of Brexit, in case it leaks and EU institutions appear defeatist. This amounts to sticking heads in the sand.
With less than 11 weeks to the vote, the reasons things are going wrong are easy to list. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, is now politically weakened by the Panama Papers fallout. Like it or not, his personal credibility affects the credibility of his message on Europe. The Dutch referendum result last week has brought added ammunition to the Brexit campaign. Nigel Farage was swift to tweet: “big No to EU. Hurrah!”
External factors driving Brexit are no less daunting. The slowdown in refugee movements across the Mediterranean — brought about by the EU-Turkey deal — is likely to be only temporary. Not just because warmer weather will make crossings easier, but because the “cessation of hostilities” in Syria has now all but collapsed. More Syrians will want to seek safety abroad. And more TV images of refugees will feed British anxieties about immigration, which is at the heart of the referendum debate.
Add to all that the impact of the Brussels attacks, so soon after the Paris terror. To many British people these events made Europe look frightening because of its very vulnerability. And that increases the pull-up-the-drawbridge syndrome.
US President Barack Obama is expected to visit the UK in a few weeks to make the case for remain. That is good news, but it’s hard to ignore that he is a lame duck president who recently criticised Europeans for being “free riders” in the global order — which didn’t go down too well among those who worry about the strength of America’s commitment to Europe’s security. Meanwhile, Obama’s entry into the referendum debate has already been slammed by Brexiters as US meddling in national affairs.
It could be argued that the Remain camp has not yet pumped up the volume, that it’s still early days to be alarmist. Some British students are just starting to campaign, and they are doing so eagerly. One media outfit, InFacts.org, is actively exposing the many myths that Brexiters are spreading. The Labour party has made Remain its official policy. But its grass roots activists will only put energy into that message after the UK’s local elections in May — and that could be too late. Also, the credibility of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, as a pro-EU voice leaves much to be desired.
Three years ago Cameron put the future of the UK — and even its territorial integrity (think Scotland) — at stake by setting off towards an in-out referendum on the EU as a way of managing his own party. It is obvious he has failed to put internal Tory dissent to rest. That Boris Johnson has sided with leave brings to mind how in 2005 the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, one of the country’s socialist heavyweights, opted for no against his own party’s leadership in the referendum campaign on the EU constitution. That led to disastrous results — despite a majority of the French media calling for a yes vote.
Authoritative European voices
In Britain the media has long been Euro-sceptic. Even the BBC seems hesitant these days. The Daily Telegraph describes the EU as either a threatening entity for Britain, or too weak an institution to protect it.
And long gone are the days when authoritative European voices could reach out to British voters in a convincing manner — as when Jacques Delors single-handedly swayed the British left towards a pro-European position in 1988.
The French President, Francois Hollande, is dismally weak, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is less politically sturdy than she once was. Populist movements whose leaders believe they stand to benefit from a British exit are on the rise across the continent.
The deeper phenomenon at work is a wider one. British society suffers from an identity crisis not unlike those that have hit other western countries in the wake of globalisation and the 2008 financial crisis. Fragmentation is spreading everywhere as nations become more inward-looking and worried about how the world is changing. In the British case this general sense of disarray now has the opportunity to express itself in a referendum.
Britain’s image has often been associated with common decency, sober assessment and coolheadedness. But this is an age of extremes when moderate voices are fast drowned out by radical slogans. Of course, Cassandras have been wrong before about the European project. The Eurozone has held together. Grexit didn’t happen. Merkel may be weaker, but she has not lost power. Yet it would be foolish not to see that the omens for Britain remaining in the EU are very poor.
But does anyone care? If they do, they need to wake up now and shout stop.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is former executive editor and managing editor of Le Monde.