Sleepwalking into Disaster
Matthew JAMISON | 23.02.2016 | WORLD | BUSINESS

Sleepwalking into Disaster

With the finalizing of the UK’s «special status» reform package of amended membership in the European Union, the race to the referendum on June 23rd which will decide whether the UK remains part of the EU under these new terms or opts for complete withdrawal has begun.

It is hard to overstate just how momentous this decision will be, not only for the British public, but also the rest of the European Union and the Western Atlantic Alliance. It is a huge gamble that the British people are being presented with. We all know what life has been like in the European Union since the UK entered what was then called the European Economic Community. After the 1975 referendum life in the UK went on as usual and the sky did not fall through. No one knows what life would have been like in the UK if the country had remained outside the European Community. The same is true today. To leave the European Union is nothing less than a leap in the dark over a cliff hoping that a life boat will be waiting when the impact of water nears. Furthermore, it would be a leap of choice.

The driving force leading the UK up the cliff to take this leap into the dark has been the Conservative Party and the overwhelmingly anti-European press in the UK. The Conservative Party has been pathologically obsessed with British membership in the European Union for the last three decades and with it pathologically opposed to Britain remaining in the EU. Let alone that $708 billion depends on inward investment from other EU counties into the UK economy; 3.4 million UK jobs depend on trade with the EU and 45% of all UK exports go into the single European market. These are just some of the economic facts which are inconvenient truths for Tory anti-Europeans. Let us not mince our words when it comes to such a profound decision of not just UK significance but also significance to all of Europe and the wider world. If the UK votes to leave the EU it will be extremely damaging to the UK’s interests and position in the world and will act as a massive destabilizing force in Europe at a critical time in the Union’s history.

The very existence of the European project came into being in the aftermath of World War II. People of my generation have little understanding of the absolute chaos and devastation that wrecked economic, social and political havoc across Europe in the wake of the defeat of Nazi Germany. After two world wars which began in Europe and a European history riddled with the destruction and death of nation-state rivalry, something had to give. So the most ambitious peace process in the world was launched to bring together once and for all the nation-states of Europe and unite them within a common political, economic and legal framework to ensure the Governments and publics of Europe worked together in partnership and harmony rather than conflict and hostility. On the whole, the project has been extremely successful with the EU proving itself to be a force for inter-governmental stability, political cooperation and greater business, trade and financial integration that has helped unlock Europe’s combined potential while enhancing cultural relations.

It has been one of the most irresponsible acts of any British Government in recent times (apart from Tony Blair’s decision to take part in the botched 2003 invasion of Iraq) to launch the deeply insular naval gazing exercise of Britain’s membership in the EU. The days of the British Empire and when Britain could stand aloof from the rest of Europe deluding herself that due to her self-anointed «Greatness» the UK need not involve herself with the affairs of Europe are long gone. We live in an extremely complex, interconnected and increasingly precarious world where Britain is only one player amongst many, seemingly permanently relegated to the second division, with even that position under constant strain from up and coming powers. The parochialism and provincialism of the British public, press and politicians is quite shocking for a country which once ruled a quarter of the globe and still holds to pretensions of global greatness and significance.

If you had just arrived from Mars into Westminster you could be forgiven for thinking from listening to the debates and business in Parliament; watching the evening news or listening to current affairs on the radio; flicking through a copy of the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail or looking over polling data on policy subjects and topics the UK public take an interest in, that there was no world outside of London and the UK or if there was, what happens in Britain is the most important news with the rest of the world turning on the British axis. While most of the British public suffer from a lethargic apathy when it comes to their democracy and are not very politically aware, savvy and engaged with the political life of their democracy, the British political elite has convinced itself that Britain and what happens in Britain is still of the greatest global importance.

Thus, nearly the whole political discourse and political culture in Britain is deeply introverted. There is not one British newspaper (perhaps apart from the Financial Times) that comes close to the cosmopolitan worldliness of the New York Times. The British public have difficulty understanding at the best of times what is happening in their own country economically, socially, educationally and politically let alone grasping the issues and challenges of the outside world; the impact these have upon the British way of life; the immense value there is to be had from learning from other countries models and the opportunities that exist to improve life in Britain from such learning. This ignorance is most potent within the ruling Conservative Party, historically the most nationalistic of the major British political parties, and certainly the most prejudiced. Indeed, it is because of the internal politics of the Tory Party that the whole of the UK has now been plunged into uncertainty. David Cameron is no strategist, merely a polished and skilful tactician.

His most dangerous tactic of all was to give into his overwhelmingly EU hostile party with the promise of a referendum after a superficial and time wasting exercise in window dressing aka the secured reform package just unveiled at the Brussels summit. This was done before the 2015 General Election in a bid to stem a perceived hemorrhage of electoral support to the United Kingdom Independence Party. As has been revealed in the release of Mrs Clinton's emails the impression that Cameron gave to American observers was one of always viewing every single issue through the lens of how it would affect the domestic political fortunes of the Conservative Party rather than the wider national and international implications. Cameron did the easy thing politically to help get him through the General Election by throwing the red meat of an EU referendum, long the Holy Grail for the English right-wing, to his Parliamentary Party and grass roots. Perhaps he thought he would never be back in Downing Street after May 2015 to make good on his tactical maneuver.

Now the genie is out of the bottle, and Cameron is most certainly not the leader equipped to beat it back. There are worries within the EU, conveyed to me in conversations I had last autumn with the General-Secretary of the European Socialist grouping in the European Parliament that if the UK exited it could trigger a domino effect with other member states deciding to follow the British example and pull out. However, my personal belief is the European Union will continue with or without the UK. After all, the European project came into being without Britain being involved and the future of 27 countries with the collective worth and weight of being part of the EU is of greater power and significance whether or not London is still in the club.

What might be best to teach the UK a lesson in realist power politics is what the brilliant Independent columnist Mary Dejevsky outlined at the YouGov conference I attended in November. Ms Dejevsky and I share the same analysis that the British state, various British Governments of Left and Right and the British public have never been able to adjust to the reality of the world post-1945, particularly the incredible and admirable rebirth and regeneration of Germany as the leading economic power of Europe while Britain finally had to shed her imperial status and focus her energies and attention on putting her own house in order. The results of the attempts to improve the quality of life, the standard of living, educational achievement and life opportunities in Britain with a more meritocratic, classless society rather than creating an Imperial power abroad by conquering and lording it over other countries while propagating an upstairs-downstairs static class system at home, have been mixed at best. While Germany was pulverized by May 1945 with her institutions and the very fabric of her state and economy destroyed or in ruins, by the end of the 1950s she had rebuilt herself and set herself on course to become the most prosperous, affluent, well trained and skilled country in Europe never encountering the Trade Union problems, inflation, unemployment and poor productivity which afflicted Britain from the 1960s onwards. By leaving the EU, the stark reality of just how small Britain is in the world today might finally sink into the British people’s consciousness.

Finally, any warped notion that somehow Britain could survive and thrive on the world stage outside of the EU would be robustly disabused. Once foreign investment starts to go to other EU member states; when Brits find it a great difficulty to travel, live and work throughout the rest of the EU; when Brussels slap trade tariffs on British exports and when Washington DC starts to move closer to Berlin as its closest strategic partner in Europe rather than the so-called «special relationship» with the UK; and when the rest of the EU collaborates less on intelligence and security information sharing with the UK, perhaps then the British public and Conservative Party will finally realize that Euroskepticism is merely a euphemism for right-wing English nationalism and delusions of grandeur. This lesson in reality will however come at a high price; could potentially lead to the fracturing of the UK rather than the EU and create substantial global instability at a time of already acute upheaval. 

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