Britain will make a once-in-a-lifetime decision in the coming months on whether to leave the European Union. Both Washington and Moscow have a lot at stake. While the US needs Britain to remain within the EU in order to do its bidding, Russia’s interests might be better served by a historic split.
The referendum on the so-called «Brexit» is to take place on June 23. It follows Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron announcing a reform package hammered out with other European leaders last week. Cameron is endorsing EU membership, claiming that his reforms have given Britons the «best of both worlds» – that is, a measure of national independence while retaining economic benefits from being still part of the EU bloc.
The last time Britain held a similar referendum was back in 1975, when a strong majority voted in favor of remaining in the then 12-member European Economic Community (EEC).
Four decades on, the EEC has transformed enormously to become the European Union of 28 member states, with a single currency for most of those members and a series of treaties that enshrine a project for federal political union. Cameron’s reforms have secured a British opt-out from the federal project of «ever closer union» as well as limited curbs on EU migrants’ social welfare rights.
Nevertheless, the European question that Britons will be voting on in the forthcoming plebiscite is very different from that of 41 years ago when the EEC was merely a commercial trading association. And polls show that the British public have become increasing leery of the EU, with the electorate now evenly divided over continued membership. It’s going to be a close call on June 23.
As in other European countries, British public perception of the EU and its Brussels administration has becoming increasingly negative, or eurosceptic. Previously, British eurosceptics were a hardboiled minority, associated with the rightwing of Cameron’s ruling Conservative party. Typically, they tended to have a «little Englander» mentality, espousing isolationism, pride in past imperial power, and free-market capitalism unfettered by government regulations, especially «foreign governments» in Brussels.
While these traits persist among the Tory party’s rightwing and in its scion of the United Kingdom Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, there is also a growing disillusionment towards the EU among centrist voters and those on the socialist left. This is because the EU’s image as a social democratic bloc has greatly diminished from earlier times. It is true that the EU has over the decades implemented many progressive laws to uphold workers’ rights and for protection of consumers and the environment. It can be argued that all countries have benefited from this uniformity of social conditions. However, in more recent years, unbridled austerity from neoliberal economic policies have transformed the formerly progressive EU into a perceived bastion of corporate power, one which is detrimental to the majority of workers.
We only have to look at how Greece is being dragooned into adopting brutal public spending cuts at the behest of the European Central Bank and IMF to appreciate why many of the EU’s 500 million citizens are alienated from what they see as a Brussels plutocracy.
The fact that executives of Britain’s biggest corporations, among the FTSE 100, are lobbying Cameron to push hard to keep within the EU is another indicator of the bloc’s alignment with corporate interests over workers’ rights.
The EU’s now-notorious democratic deficit, or more stridently «dictatorial tendency», has galvanized voters on both the right and the left. The eurosceptics are no longer just «reactionary little Englanders» but also include many who view the EU as an anti-democratic machine serving the super rich.
Moreover, Brussels is seen as being pathetically subordinate to Washington’s economic and foreign policies. The alignment of the EU with the US-led NATO military alliance is a case in point. As is the way that Brussels has meekly toed the American line of imposing sanctions against Russia and fostering a generally hostile climate between Europe and Moscow.
The Brexit referendum is throwing up some strange bedfellows. Already, the UKIP’s Nigel Farage has shared a public platform with the avowed socialist firebrand George Galloway in calling for a Leave-the-EU vote.
While those calling for a Remain-in-the-EU vote include Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn has distanced himself, however, by saying that he wants to reform the EU from within to make it a more socialist bloc. In an article for the Guardian, he wrote: «Labour will be running a positive campaign for the real change we need: to unite opposition to austerity and build a Europe of sustainable growth, jobs and social justice».
The Scottish Nationalists led by Nicola Sturgeon are unanimously for staying in the EU. They have said that if Britain votes for a Brexit, then the Scots will push again for a new independence vote from the United Kingdom.
Cameron’s own party is deeply split on the big question. Six of his 24 cabinet ministers are against EU membership, which is an unprecedented dissent from the prime minister’s authority. While nearly half of the total Conservative party’s 329 Members of Parliament are also opposed to staying in Europe.
The Leave Europe moral was given a major boost when Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London, broke ranks and declared his support for a Brexit – much to Cameron’s chagrin. The flamboyant Johnson is popular among voters. Some commentators have even said that if Cameron loses over the referendum, then Johnson is in pole position to replace him in Downing Street.
An important weathervane is the position of Washington on the future of Britain and Europe. President Barack Obama has already personally intervened to recommend Britain stay within the EU. Washington has also taken the extraordinary step of announcing that an independent Britain would not avail of any special trading privileges – meaning that it was pointedly incentivizing continued membership of the bloc.
But the precise American interest in Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe was made more explicit in a recent article by Richard Haas, who was formerly a policy director at the State Department and is the president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations. Haas wrote: «From my perspective (and that of many other Americans), a decision by the United Kingdom to exit the EU would be undesirable – indeed, highly undesirable».
He went on to explain: «One reason why the US values its ties to the UK as much as it does is the UK’s role in Europe. Britain is important not just as a bilateral partner, but because more often than not it can be counted on to argue for and support positions in Brussels consistent with, or at least not far from, those of the US».
In short, Britain is Washington’s gopher in Europe. Or to put it another way: without Britain, Washington would not be able to control European policies as much as it has done up to now. This has huge implications for both economic and foreign policies.
Imagine for a moment the European Union without Britain’s unswerving pro-Washington agenda. There is a fair chance that the EU would not have indulged the American regime change policies in the Middle East and North Africa, which have resulted in a refugee crisis tearing EU members apart at the seams. If it were not for Britain’s bullish advocacy of Washington’s anti-Russian sanctions and pro-NATO militarism generally, there is a fair chance that the current standoff between Europe and Moscow would not have transpired.
British inclusion in Europe is of paramount geopolitical advantage to Washington. Britain is crucial for driving the American wedge between Europe – especially Germany – and Russia. That’s what Richard Haas was referring to in his angst over a possible Brexit.
A socialist European Union independent from American foreign policy and one where normal relations with Russia are allowed to prevail is a preferred objective. But is that realistically achievable as long as Uncle Sam’s British bulldog remains snapping at everyone’s heels?
Perhaps the most expedient way forward is for Britain to leave the EU. From Russia’s point of view, a Brexit could be a lucky break.