The European Council (EC) meets on Thursday and Friday for a key summit in Brussels that will debate the new European Union (EU) “settlement” for Britain, negotiated by EC President Donald Tusk and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Should the package be agreed, it will effectively kick off the campaign to decide whether Britain will remain in the currently 28-member EU with a referendum as early as June.
The plebiscite is thus a pivotal poll that will help determine the future character of the United Kingdom and indeed the EU at large, politically and economically, for potentially decades to come. And the EC’s decision will be perhaps the most critical milestone in the domestic British debate this year that could lead to exit (or Brexit) some two years after the eventual referendum date.
Should Cameron win support in Brussels for his package, which Brexit proponents have already criticised as a sham, he will double-down on his efforts to sell the deal to the UK electorate. The debate promises to be a vigorous one and a number of recent polls have, dramatically, shown the ‘leave’ vote ahead. For instance, a YouGov/Sunday Times poll earlier this month put support for Brexit around 45 per cent, with the ‘remain’ vote at 36 per cent, while around a fifth of the population was undecided or not planning to vote. The survey also found only 22 per cent view Cameron as having secured a good deal with Tusk, while some 56 per cent believe to the contrary.
Even if the settlement is agreed this week, which is by no means certain, what this underlines is that the prospect of Brexit is a real one. In part, this is because Britain has been deluged by a tide of euroscepticism for many years from much of the media and leading Conservative and United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) politicians. In what could prove a very tight eventual vote, the outcome could yet become tied to external events in 2016, including the possibility of a second summer of migration crisis.
Some, internationally, regard the referendum outcome as a parochial British issue with little or no consequence for the rest of the world. However, United States President Barack Obama and several other world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, have publicly articulated their concerns about Brexit, and indeed the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Bob Corker, last week, let slip that the Obama administration plans a “big, public reach-out” to try to persuade UK voters to remains inside the EU.
Bipartisan concern in Washington about the referendum was underlined in a testimony last week to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democrat Julianne Smith, a former national security adviser to Vice-President Joe Biden, said the poll is “a risky gamble because the migration crisis has layered on additional complaints and concerns about the EU’s ability to protect its citizens and its borders. When you pair that with just general disaffection about globalisation you have got a very dangerous mix”. Moreover, Republican Damon Wilson, former European affairs director at the National Security Council under former US president George W. Bush asserted that “the amount of refugees flowing into Europe the week of the referendum may have more to do with the outcome of that referendum. It is a very risky proposition. You can see the fluctuation in how people vote in referendums and it becomes an alternative, or substitute, for other concerns about what is gripping Europe”.
Unfortunately, the prospects for the ‘remain’ vote winning have not been helped by the Cameron government’s foreign policy leadership and misjudgement towards the EU. While genuine reform is needed of the Brussels-based club, the prime minister has had few clear, substantive goals for the proposed renegotiation with his European partners, nor a coherent or comprehensive strategy for achieving those ambitions.
However, Cameron has been fortunate — to date at least — in that the forces arguing for Brexit are not unified, amidst feuding personalities, which is blunting their message. While some pro-leave groups have merged under the banner of “Grassroots Out”, with the blessing of Ukip Leader Nigel Farage, the Conservative-led ‘Vote Leave’, led by former finance minister Nigel Lawson, has so far refused to join that coalition. Nonetheless, the ‘leave’ vote could still win the day in the referendum and, if so, this would represent a genuine setback to the UK’s international economic and political influence. Moreover, it would also greatly increase the likelihood of a second Scottish independence vote, raising the spectre of the break-up of Britain.
The Scottish population is, in general, more favourable towards continued membership in the EU than the English — who account for a majority of the UK’s population. And Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has previously argued that Britain should only leave the EU if majorities in each of the four constituent countries (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) all voted to leave.
Polls indicate the SNP will likely emerge from May’s elections in that country with another majority government in Edinburgh — an outcome that would ensure that the question of Scotland’s constitutional status remains on the agenda. So the SNP will almost certainly seek to use UK exit from the EU as a potential trigger for a second independence plebiscite.
Ultimately, the Brexit referendum is not just a burning issue for the UK, but also the rest of the world as a Britain that no longer punches so strongly on the international stage is also less able to bolster international security and economic prosperity at a time when both remain fragile. The recent 70th anniversaries of the end of the Second World War in Europe and Asia are a fitting time to remember the UK’s traditions as a long-standing promoter of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Continuing this long into the 21st century would be best secured through continued British membership of a reformed EU, buttressed by the preservation of the long-standing union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics and a former UK Government special adviser.