realclearworld Newsletters: Europe Memo

Strange Days in the U.K.
AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert
Strange Days in the U.K.
AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert
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Great Britain's date with European destiny is set.

On June 23, Britons finally will head to the polls to advise their government on whether they believe Prime Minister David Cameron's deal with Brussels to reform the country's membership in the European Union satisfies them, or whether they believe the United Kingdom should leave the EU altogether. Thus a question that emerged out of an intra-Tory squabble will culminate in a decision that could define British (and European) politics for a generation. And as Britain sails through permanent campaign mode, with the second existential referendum in three years sandwiching a general election and a dramatic contest for leadership of a major party, the hope is that by this summer, the United Kingdom might have some clarity on the future shape of its politics and its foreign relationships -- and on the shape of the country itself.

The issues that would define the Brexit campaign had, until last week, remained somewhat muddled. That was deliberate in part. Amid a lackluster official start to the campaign last fall, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform told me that the Remain campaign was holding its fire for the time being -- a tactical decision emanating from the very top that makes better sense now as the rhetorical silence has been shattered.

It was London Mayor Boris Johnson who broke the calm, announcing he would campaign for Leave. And in the days since, as the British pound took a steep fall and the City of London Corporation took a big step toward breaking neutrality to support continued EU membership, we have seen the prime minister move into action. He lashed into Johnson (though indirectly) on the floor of the House of Commons, hit the campaign trail to speak to voters directly, and in general spoke like a man who knows that -- however adequate or less a national leader -- he stands to leave a greater legacy, for better or for worse, than most European leaders can contemplate.

The pro-Europe case is simple and blunt, and the Economist runs it through effectively in an editorial this week. Summarized, it reads as such: All of the freedom of maneuver you think you'll gain, you'll actually lose; Europe would hold huge leverage in any negotiation with an isolated Albion; and Britain's loss of clout within what remains a very powerful supranational club, in the reality of the 21st century, easily voids any ephemeral gains in sovereignty. Oh, and Scotland might leave.

The details of the Remain argument are much better established than they are yet disseminated, and it will be interesting to track their reception by the electorate in the coming weeks and months -- especially as the Leave side is no longer led by a lightning rod such as Nigel Farage, who draws at least as much antipathy as he does support, but instead is fronted by Johnson, whose ability to win election is beyond all doubt. Polling has been split so far, and in talking to people in the United Kingdom, their ambivalence is striking. Brexit is no fringe view, it has some currency across the broad wash of British society, and voters will want to be convinced. In a fast-changing Europe, the question over the next four months is whether it will be arguments or events that do most of the convincing.

As the Brexit campaign picks up, here are three things to watch:

PARTY POLITICS: Following electoral collapse in the 2015 general election, a shocked Labour Party turned its back to the future in electing the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. While Labour has been left fighting itself, the Conservatives have reacted with glee at the prospect of dominating Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system for the foreseeable future. But many a political observer steadfastly warned that a Brexit storm would eventually fall upon the Tories. As James Forsyth of the Spectator wrote this week:

"[W]hatever happens elsewhere, the Conservative party cannot avoid the defining question: should a Tory want Britain to leave the European Union or stay in it? As William Hague has said, the party could have ten or perhaps even 15 years of power ahead, if the party can avoid tearing itself apart over Europe. As matters stand today, that's a very big ‘if.'"

Beneath the rough-and-tumble between Johnson and Cameron glide the tally of numbers backing and opposing Brexit. Conservative Home has been tracking them, and as of Feb. 26, counted 158 Conservative lawmakers for Remain, and 124 for Leave.

For all the Tory troubles, Corbyn's leadership hardly presages a Labour lift over Brexit. Corbyn's support of the European Union has been listless and halfhearted thus far, and Labour List's Maya Goodfellow describes the results on Labour benches:

"There are undoubtedly problems to overcome. While the Tories fight it out, there needs to be a broad agreement among pro-EU Labour politicians. Certain ex-Labour ministers emerging from the woodwork to make their views known on the EU, and use the opportunity to have a pop at Jeremy Corbyn, aren't helping shift this debate into the realms of sensible. They are, rather short-sightedly, using the debate for their own means while assuming that all Labour supporters are enthusiastically for the EU."

REFERENDUM FEVER IN THE EU: "If Britain leaves, or is afforded special treatment, why shouldn't we do the same?"

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the danger for the European Union now is that this is the question electorates throughout the Union will be asking. The Netherlands has already scheduled a referendum on an EU trade deal with Ukraine, and that poll is a stand-in for popular sentiment toward the European Union. Now, a leading pollster finds the Dutch would in fact like their own referendum on EU membership. This week, Hungary said it will hold a referendum on EU migration policy. Expect referenda and rumors of referenda to become a prominent part of the European political landscape.

UNDERSTANDING THE LISBON TREATY: Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, as EUObserver puts it, offers member states a "vague map towards the exit door" of the European Union. Said article, says Cameron, will be invoked if the British people vote Leave on June 23. EUObs:

"There would be no catharsis for advocates of the ‘Leave' campaign as the process allows for up to two years of negotiation, after which the EU would present the UK with a deal.

"‘We should be clear that this process is not an invitation to re-join. It is a process for leaving,' Cameron said.

"As Article 50 has never been used before, there is no clear framework of how those negotiations would work."

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond underscored that a vote to Leave would trigger an irreversible process:

"Hammond says the government will regard itself as bound by the result of the referendum, even though it is technically only an advisory referendum.

"Hammond says there will be no second referendum. ‘Leave means leave,' he says. If Britain votes to leave, that will trigger the article 50 process leading to Britain leaving the EU."

Still, whatever process Article 50 triggers is a process that has never been implemented. The European Union has survived almost a decade of crisis by playing loose with its own rules repeatedly, and considering the importance accorded by both sides to keeping the Union whole, there's no telling how the process might play out in the event of a Leave vote. In the meantime, there will be a minute dissection of the vagaries of EU law in the coming months.


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