Bri­tish ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship

Pakistan Observer - - EDITORIALS & COMMENTS - Shahid M Amin

in the EEC was more of a forced na­ture: if it was not done, the coun­try would have lost in­flu­ence in Europe and would not have shared eco­nomic ben­e­fits in the new Europe. But even af­ter gain­ing mem­ber­ship, Bri­tain con­tin­ued to em­pha­size its Com­mon­wealth and global in­ter­ests. It was al­ways seen as a “re­luc­tant part­ner” of EEC: it never put for­ward any con­struc­tive ideas of its own for Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion and of­ten ob­structed the moves by other Euro­pean coun­tries to en­hance in­te­gra­tion. It never gave up its own cur­rency nor adopted the Euro. It did not en­ter the Schen­gen visa regime for open travel.

Even years af­ter be­com­ing a part of the EU, Bri­tish opin­ion has re­mained divided on the mer­its and de­mer­its of mem­ber­ship. The present po­si­tion is that within the rul­ing Con­ser­va­tive party, there are many “Eu­roscep­tics”. Old-style na­tion­al­ism sur­vives, with lin­ger­ing mem­o­ries of Bri­tish im­pe­rial days and the cen­turies-old tra­di­tion of “splen­did iso­la­tion” that had kept Bri­tain away from en­tan­gle­ment in Europe, ex­cept when it suited Bri­tish na­tional in­ter­ests.

More re­cently, af­ter the in­duc­tion of the poorer East Euro­pean exCom­mu­nist states in the EU, the pol­icy of free move­ment within the com­mu­nity has led to a growing in­flux of mi­grants into Bri­tain from Poland and else­where in East Europe. The fear of loss of jobs and eth­nic prej­u­dices have seen a rise in the rel­a­tive pop­u­lar­ity of fringe par­ties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is a Euro-scep­tic, right-wing pop­ulist party led by Nigel Farage. Though it has just one seat in the House of Com­mons, it has 22 mem­bers in the Euro­pean Email:shahid_m_amin@hot­mail.com par­lia­ment, the largest among all Bri­tish political par­ties. UKIP re­gards Bri­tish exit from the EU as the “core is­sue”. It sees a “se­ri­ous ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis” in the “Is­lam­i­fi­ca­tion” of Bri­tain. Its em­pha­sis on English­ness negates the dis­tinct cul­ture of Scot­tish, Welsh and Ir­ish peo­ples in the UK. The party’s growing pop­u­lar­ity has come mainly at the ex­pense of the Con­ser­va­tives. While some of its mem­bers have sym­pa­thies with the UKIP, some other Con­ser­va­tives want to steal the thun­der of UKIP by press­ing their lead­er­ship for Bri­tain’s exit from the EU.

Com­ing un­der the pres­sure of Euro-scep­tic back­benchers within his own party, Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron made an elec­tion pledge last year to hold an in/out ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship of the EU by the end of 2017. This was done to keep the party united, though it is clear that Cameron him­self wants Bri­tain to stay in the EU. Re­cently, Cameron un­der­took a tour of some EU cap­i­tals to rene­go­ti­ate the terms of Bri­tish mem­ber­ship of the EU, e.g. plac­ing more restric­tions on the in­flux of mi­grants to Bri­tain. His talks have not se­cured any ma­te­rial changes in EU poli­cies though he is claim­ing a vic­tory in this bid. Cameron has vowed to cam­paign to keep Bri­tain inside a “re­formed” EU, but sev­eral mem­bers of his own cabi­net are cam­paign­ing for Brexit. The Con­ser­va­tive Party has de­cided to re­main neu­tral in the ref­er­en­dum but the op­po­si­tion par­ties, apart from UKIP, are strongly in favour of keeping Bri­tain in the EU. The me­dia is also largely sup­port­ing Bri­tain re­main­ing in the EU.

The ad­van­tages of leav­ing the EU are that it will lead to a sav­ing of about 8.5 bil­lion pounds as Bri­tain‘s con­tri­bu­tion to the EU bud­get. That is not a big fig­ure and ac­counts for about 7% of the ex­pen­di­ture in­curred on health ser­vices. The restric­tions on in­flux of mi­grants are seen as an ad­van­tage, but the op­po­site ar­gu­ment is that Bri­tain will be de­priv­ing it­self of many im­mi­grants who are highly qual­i­fied young peo­ple. Re­gain­ing of full sovereignty will give a boost to na­tion­al­ism. Some ar­gue that the EU has placed too many restric­tions on busi­ness which would be bet­ter off oth­er­wise.

The main dis­ad­van­tage in leav­ing EU is that Bri­tain will be­come the odd man out in Europe and will be rel­a­tively iso­lated. Its global im­por­tance will be ad­versely af­fected. The exit will be seen as a step against the spirit of times, which is re­gional in­te­gra­tion. Bri­tain’s in­flu­ence in Europe would be less. Nearly all EU mem­bers want Bri­tain to con­tinue its mem­ber­ship. France has warned that in case of Bri­tain’s exit, there will be “con­se­quences”. Pres­i­dent Obama has urged Bri­tain to re­main in the EU. The US fears that the “EU ref­er­en­dum is a dan­ger­ous gam­ble that could un­ravel with dis­as­trous con­se­quences for the en­tire con­ti­nent.” Bri­tish eco­nomic in­ter­ests in Europe will suf­fer sig­nif­i­cantly.

Ac­cord­ing to Lon­don Mayor Sadiq Khan, Lon­don city alone will suf­fer badly in terms of jobs, busi­ness, ex­ports and tourism. More than half a mil­lion jobs in Lon­don are di­rectly de­pen­dent on the EU. Though opin­ion polls are mak­ing op­po­site pre­dic­tions, prob­a­bly the Bri­tish peo­ple will de­cide with a nar­row ma­jor­ity to stay in EU. That will be good for Bri­tain and for the world. — The writer served as Pak­istan’s Am­bas­sador to Saudi Ara­bia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nige­ria and Libya.

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