The UK’s EU referendum: The missing question

22 juin 2016
On Thursday, June 23, 2016, the British citizens will vote whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. The referendum promised by the Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013, in case he was reelected, was finally set after the Prime Minister reached an agreement with his European partners this past February providing the UK what he called a “special status.” As the referendum campaign is now proceeding, far from being a rational debate about an issue that will engage the future of the country and of the EU, we are confronted with a strange competition of words and numbers creating a confusing noise, mixing unexpected comments comparing the EU project to Hitler’s ambitions, and a data race on economic issues supposed to convince the people of the cost of an exit, and which finally fears them more than it informs them.

Recently, British historians entered in the debate, providing another perspective to what could have been considered until then as a political domestic competition inside the conservative party and vain polemic. By adding an historical perspective, they have reinitiated an old debate on the belonging of the UK to the European continent and they have given to the referendum a dimension that was missing until then. But even with this debate on the European identity of the UK, which could seem academic, the way the campaign is running misses the core of the British dilemma. In a certain way, as in the 1960s and 1970s, when the country tried several times to become a member of the then-called European Economic Community (EEC) after missing the first train of the European integration during the 1950s, the campaign is not mainly about the UK in Europe. The referendum debate is mostly about the UK itself, and more precisely about the way the country sees itself in the world. As a country historically open to the outside, does the European step provide the opportune scale for the British to reach their global ambitions? Does the UK really need the European level to deal with economic globalization? This dilemma, that could be considered as the unsaid of the referendum debate, should be at the heart of the current campaign and the answer to these explicit questions should determine the vote of the British people.

The British dilemma towards Europe

In the campaign, even though we could find some arguments in favor of the Brexit arguing that the country will do better in economic globalization by developing its own relations with the emerging economies, or that at the time of the Empire the country was doing much better than now in the EU and it should regain its full sovereignty and independence, the debate was mainly oriented around the fear of immigration on one side, and the fear of economic decline on the other side. Despite the fact that the nostalgia of a time definitely past does not seem a useful adviser to decide whether to leave the EU or not, the referendum of June 23 could have been the occasion to resolve the historical British dilemma toward the European project; but as usual with this kind of political consultation, the debate will not have had taken place.

The “national strategy” towards the European integration in the 1950s, to use the formula of the great British historian Alan S. Milward, was determined by the representation that the country developed about its own place in the world. At this time, the non-participation to the EEC project was already due to the idea that the UK should think and act bigger than the European scale, and even though the Empire was gone, the country still had a world role to play. The government had then decided to prioritize relations with its Commonwealth partners, to develop a special relationship with the United States and to continue its involvement in world affairs.

But a few years later, in 1961, seeing that the EEC project was working, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was justifying his demand of membership to the EEC by using, at first, a political argument, arguing that it was the duty and the interest of the United Kingdom to contribute to the creation of a “closer union among the European peoples” in accordance with the goals of the six member states of the EEC [1]. Then, he was using an economic argument, recalling the benefits that the country will draw by being part of the European common market. At this time, the economic relations with the Commonwealth and European Free-Trade Association (EFTA) countries – Britain’s usual partners – were weakening and encouraged the British government to get closer to the continental initiative, in which the economy and trade were growing faster. It is what Edward Heath, Lord Privy Seal, recalled few months before the first candidacy. On May 16, 1961, during a debate at the House of Commons on the future of relations between the UK and the EEC, answering to the Labor Party Members of Parliament, who were then hostile to the idea of becoming a member of the EEC, the conservative politician explained: “Until the creation of the Economic Community our trade with Europe was increasing. It amounted to 15 percent of our trade. During the past five years our exports to the Six have increased at nearly twice the rate of our total export trade. This trade is bound to be affected by the creation of the common tariff around the markets of the Six and the gradual abolition of their internal tariffs.” So, after having been reluctant to the common market project and favoring economic and political relations with distant partners – a relic of empire –, it was in the name of the said British interests that the conservative government decided to join the EEC. But even at this time, the place given to the economic relations with the Commonwealth partners in the negotiations with the EEC was witness to the fact that the UK was still balancing with the two scales, the European and the world one.

As a cross-partisan opinion, from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown, this dilemma has never disappeared from the British European policy. As Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister Gordon Brown theorized the issue in several speeches by calling for a global Europe [2]. For him, “The countries and continents that will succeed in the new era of globalization will be those that are open rather than closed, for free trade rather than protectionism, are flexible rather than rigid, and invest in high skills and the potential of their people.” A global Europe should not be “just an internal single market that looks inwards but a driving force of the new fast-changing global market place.” The leader of the Labor Party believed that those “who have always been supporters of the benefits of European cooperation have a duty not to be silent about the need for Europe to reform. […] Europe must now move from a trade bloc dominated by its own internal rules to a more flexible Europe for the global era. […]” For him, the issue was not just how Europe could integrate more states, but how all members “reach out to the rest of the world. While the old assumption was that we would move from economic integration at a national level to economic integration at a European level, it is in fact global not European flows of capital that now dominate; the global, not European, company; and the global, not European, brands.”

As the campaign comes to an end, the British dilemma toward Europe and the world remains without clear answers since the debate is avoided. Confiscated by internal political polemics for the leadership of the Conservative party, the referendum campaign has shown little appetite for rationale arguments. Soon, we will see if the bet of David Cameron has changed into a trap for him, and if the British “national strategy” towards Europe has fallen once again.

[1] See Robert Chaouad, “Le Royaume-Uni et l’Europe: in et out”, La revue internationale et stratégique, n° 91, Paris, IRIS/Armand Colin, automne 2013, p. 151-161.
[2] See Robert Chaouad, “L’Europe selon Gordon Brown, ou la ‘globalisation’ pour horizon”, Actualités européennes, IRIS, n° 20, mai 2008.
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