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Letter from London: Battle of “Brexit” Heats Up--An Insider View on the June 23 Referendum on EU Membership     Print Email

MichaelWhite2016Champions of American exceptionalism, those who still believe their country’s historic circumstances are unique, face another disappointment in the summer ahead. The 2016 fight for the White House is not the only important battle for votes which has sunk to demeaning levels of superficiality and abuse. Britain’s June 23 referendum debate over its 43-year membership of the European Union (EU) is not doing well either.

What happened almost immediately after the two terrorist bomb outrages in Brussels last month? A prominent Fleet St newspaper columnist tweeted: “Brussels, de facto capital of the EU, is also the jihadist capital of Europe. And the Remainers dare to say we’re safer in the EU. #Brexit.” She was not the only online opportunist to plant the Brexit flag (as in “British exit”) on still-warm corpses in a manner that offended even her own newspaper’s generally EU-averse readers.

Politicians, ex-spooks, real retired generals (including David Petraeus) and the armchair variety on Twitter, weighed in on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, European police and intelligence services are useless and untrustworthy, on the other, greater cooperation, not less, might better serve to defeat the destabilizing threat to Europe poised by the boy bombers at so-called Islamic State and the refugees they drive north. 

Talking of whom, are some bombers posing as refugees? The Brussels bombers certainly took advantage of the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone rules to roam too freely. So did the Paris bombers last year. It all feeds paranoia and the fortress mentality. For Mexican walls, read Austrian barbed wire.

Amid the usual froth and hysteria (the US is not exceptional on that score either), some valid points were visible on both sides. For instance, that the artificial buffer state of Belgium is both governed and policed in a very fragile and fragmented way. Is Belgian weakness a valid Brexit point? Or a strategic British headache since Phillip II’s invading army waited in vain for the doomed Spanish Armada to collect it there in 1588?

When 45 million voters decide, few may remember that Britain rejoined the EU-wide European Arrest Warrant procedure on police advice in 2014, despite the EAW’s evident flaws. In 2005 it was used to return Osman Hussein, a fugitive London bomber (the plot was thwarted), from Italy. Better to have an EAW than none, say the Remainers or the “Ins” who want to reform the struggling EU rather than seek to tow England into mid-Atlantic, almost certainly leaving Scotland behind.

Terrorism is merely one of many bones now being chewed to Euro-fragments. When Tata, the Indian steel conglomerate, confirmed on March 31, that it wants a buyer for the loss making steel plant at Port Talbot in South Wales - a serious strategic blow to Britain’s residual manufacturing base in any circumstances - the Brexiteers blamed European regulations. Had Brussels not failed to erect effective tariff walls against Chinese dumping and set impractical targets for reducing carbon emissions? But it was David Cameron’s government, currently keen to woo Chinese investment, which blocked EU action and stung the steel industry with higher energy costs, replied the In camp, whose “safety first” campaign is lacklustre and uninspiring.

As so often, polls suggest that around one third of voters are committed to one camp on a mixture of reason, self-interest and gut emotion, another third is as fixed in the opposing camp, while in the middle less partisan or engaged citizens struggle to make sense of the barrage of noise coming their way. Most polls put the Remainers ahead, though an April 3 Opinion (sec) result for the Observer newspaper found the Leavers edging it by 43% to 39% with 18% undecided.

The elderly, as nostalgic for past certainties as any Donald Trump supporter in struggling Middle America, tend to favour Brexit. The young are more optimistic, despite high youth unemployment in the EU’s more stagnant labour markets and the evident ability of educated, motivated and multilingual Poles or Spaniards to grab at insecure or low-paid jobs that young Brits can’t or won’t take.

In any case, young people everywhere notoriously fail actually to vote in comparable numbers to the old. Nor have they so far had much encouragement. Populist parties of the right like the UK Independence Party (UKIP), an herbivorous version of the US Tea Party, appeal mostly to older voters. So does Dr. Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany (AfD,) which is now hurting Angela Merkel electorally, especially in the former communist east. Progressive parties like Britain’s Liberal Democrats and the Green, are pro-EU. So are Scotland’s all-conquering nationalists.

But the main opposition Labour party is now led by Jeremy Corbyn, teetotal, vegetarian and pacifist, whose proclaimed support for EU is tepid at best, undermined by decades when he was a vocal leftwing critic of the EU capitalist ramp. In March, Corbyn’s most publicized comment was to urge consumers to eat more green salad with their lamb kebabs. It drew mean-spirited mockery, but was unhelpful. Absorbed in its internal battles, Labour is mostly on sabbatical.

Tony Blair could help, but he is pretty toxic these days. That leaves prime minister, David Cameron, and his Treasury secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, to do most of the referendum’s heavy lifting, supported in varying degrees of enthusiasm by most of their charisma-lite cabinet, five other members (now reduced to four by a resignation) having permission to campaign for Brexit. The Dave and George partnership, rooted in Oxford’s equivalent of Yale’s Skull and Bones tomfoolery, has not had a good month. Osborne’s March 16 budget was badly mauled, both by experts and backbench Conservative MPs, half of them Brexit advocates. Iain Duncan Smith (“IDS”), the cabinet minister in charge of welfare spending, but also a prominent Brexiteer, resigned, ostensibly over fresh cuts to disability payments made to help trim the deficit and debt legacy of the bankers crash. Under pressure, Osborne backed down.

Meanwhile the overseas trade deficit came in at record levels and ministers were caught on the back foot, as they should not have been, over Tata’s decision to sell Port Talbot (if a buyer can be found). Even Corbyn hit that large target, as he did not over IDS’s resignation. Surely Osborne deserves credit for raising the minimum wage from April 1 to £7.20 an hour for those over 25, ask loyalists? No, say small employers who may have to sack staff to meet the bigger payroll. No, say workers who seek higher taxes on drink, cigarettes and other living costs gobbling up the much-trumpeted benefit. Economic growth predictions look daily less certain.

It is a grim background against which to invite voters to trust the prime minister. Whenever the In camp warns that the uncertainties of leaving the EU, not to mention the difficulties of a newly “sovereign” Britain negotiating trade agreements with its estranged partners ( and everyone else), the risk to NATO cohesion and the fight against Islamist terrorism, it is accused of launching “ Project Fear.” It prefers the phrase “Project Facts.”

Apart from a blithe assurance that all will be well, despite brief turbulence for sterling and UK companies, the Brexit camp offers no detailed programme for the transition and cannot even decide which non EU state it would most like to resemble. When it cites Norway or Switzerland, both point out they pay EU dues, obey EU regulations and take lots of migrants. When Canada or (last week) Australia becomes the model, its leaders hasten to say they would prefer Britain to remain united (Scotland threatens to leave if the UK votes to leave) and inside the EU.

Hedge fund managers, big time gamblers and self-made tycoons, maverick industrialists (not many of them) and climate change sceptics like former Conservative chancellor, Lord Nigel Lawson, and Boris Johnson, the colourful mayor of London, are prominent in the Out camp. They appeal to Britain’s ancient piratical outlook, the spirit of Drake or Nelson, and to Churchill’s famous warning to de Gaulle: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, then she must always choose the open sea.” Needless to say, both sides claim Churchill’s posthumous support, rightly so since he was highly ambiguous about the European project in the 1950s. So was Margaret Thatcher, at least when in power.

As for the opinion of foreigners, well-meaning and otherwise, in this most insular of contests with global implications (will the fragile EU survive such a rupture?) those who dare to defend the battered status quo are told to mind their own business, as if it was not their business too. When President Obama, a statesman who probably thinks of Europe less often or affectionately than any predecessor, gently urged British voters not to abandon Europe, Liam Fox, a Thatcherite lightweight, briefly Cameron’s very mediocre defense secretary (2010/11), told him to butt out. Fox had previously boasted of the hard work he did for Mitt Romney’s candidacy.

The worldly view remains that when the distraction of the annual spring elections for local authorities, the London mayor and Scots or Welsh regional parliaments are over in early May, the big guns will persuade enough voters against the unquantifiable risks of Brexit to uphold the status quo. That is what tends to happen with referendums unless voters are more concerned to punish the government that asked the question because they are angry.

There is little doubt that Britain’s electorate is as angry this spring as they are in most developed democracies. How angry they will not know until late June. At that point, the ultra-worldly will reassure each other that, if Brits vote to stay they will be half out anyway, if they vote to leave they will have to negotiate their way halfway back in, as with that EU arrest warrant. Not much will really change, they say, our problems won’t just go away.

Like everything else that too is disputed.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian in London