Britain’s engagement with Europe is heading for the rocks.
Britain’s days in the European Union are numbered, whatever the result of next month’s “Brexit” referendum.
British withdrawal will annoy, apart from the British government itself, our own foreign minister, who has informed the United Kingdom that Australia would “prefer” it stayed on in the EU. In this she is simply echoing her master’s voice, since a preference for supranational conglomerates lording it over individual nations is part of the package deal of opinions held by the leftish liberal establishment to which Malcolm Turnbull belongs
We might liken the EU debate in Britain to the republic debate in Australia. Voters rejected a republic in the last referendum, but the result was close, as it seems it will be with Brexit. Yet no one believes the possibility of an Australian republic has gone away. It still simmers, and could flare up to the point that no number of nostalgic visits by King Charles III to Timbertop or future royal babies blinking from the cover of the Women’s Weekly can reverse it.
So it will be with Britain and the EU. If David Cameron and his “Remain” buddies, in motley alliance with high finance and the anti-nationalists of the Guardian Left and the BBC, get their way and the referendum opts for staying in the EU, it will not be a final answer. Relations between Britain and the EU can only get worse, as the EU pushes its legislative ambitions deeper into the domestic affairs of its member nations, further restricting the already limited say national governments have in the running of their own countries. If, after 43 years of Britain in the EU, so many Britons wish to be out of it, how many more will come to this view after a few more years of increasing EU meddling? The referendum itself is proof of this dissatisfaction. The British economy is doing better than EU states, yet the better it does the more Britain’s net EU contributions go up, currently to about around $8.5 billion a year. Brexit supporters point out how much more usefully this money could be spent at home.
You can understand why European togetherness seemed a good idea back in the days of the Cold War, with Europe a huddle of smaller nations stuck between a grim and threatening USSR and the mighty if not universally loved USA. But the USSR is gone now and it was NATO, not the EU, that saw Europe through the Cold War. In a globalised world the notion of a “third bloc” is out of date.
Yet the EU programme towards greater integration grinds on regardless. Except on the Left, this doesn’t go down well in Britain, even in these days of muted patriotism. There are still many Britons who take a pride in their country and its constitutional record. Some of the crowds who celebrated the ninetieth birthday of the Queen last month will have noted the irony that as long as Britain is in the EU she is not really a sovereign at all. She, like them, is a citizen of a European superstate in gestation (she’s also Australia’s EU citizen head of state: there’s a nice thought for lovers of multiculturalism if not republicans). The EU was sold to the British as a “common market” but its subsequent conduct has brought home to voters what was always intended, that trade was only a first step to a united states of Europe.
For all the jibes of the “Remain” lobby, opponents of the EU can’t all be little Englanders and in 2016 there can be few nostalgics for empire among them or old codgers still fighting the Battle of Britain. Many “Brexiteers” have grown up with Britain part of the EU. That they should be dissatisfied with the EU is in part the EU’s own fault. While its market component declines its bureaucratic aggrandisement becomes more shameless. EU regulations intrude into every Briton’s lives – one more level of government to be funded by the taxpayer, and a level of government that, unlike national and local administration, the taxpayer can’t vote out of office.
It is this so-called democratic deficit that will drive Britain out of the EU, either next month or in the foreseeable future. Britain is the only major country in the EU in which the accountability of government is non-negotiable. Since 1660 no Briton has known any form of government except democracy. In continental Europe the democratic deficit weighs less, because democracy, especially in the last century, has not been the norm. Germany, Italy, and Spain have all been governed by dictatorships, and France under De Gaulle was hardly an example of democracy in full flower. European citizens with a tradition of being pushed around by dictators are less likely to notice, or object to, the high-handedness of unelected Brussels commissars. For the British it goes against the grain. David Cameron’s strategy is to play it down, and talk up the alleged benefits of EU membership and the frightful things he says will happen to the British economy if Britain leaves.
Nothing foreseeable will make the EU more popular in Britain. And as its capacity as a market for British exports shrinks, the EU will come to be seen more as a hugely expensive millstone, a solid platinum trough for the snouts of an army of apparatchiks – for what in return? For a treaty that allows Britons to travel around Europe without visas? They were able to do that without an EU before the First World War. More seriously, for a treaty that inter alia ties Britain’s hands in regulating unprecedented immigration and obliges a trading nation not to enter into bilateral trade agreements with countries such as India and China where economies are growing, and even with Australia and the rest of the “old Commonwealth” with which Britain once traded to much mutual advantage.
If Britain doesn’t vote on 23 June to leave the EU the tide of anti-EU sentiment cannot but swell. Politicians with prime ministerial potential such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have staked their careers on British withdrawal. If the referendum decides in favour of staying, they and the millions of other people who will have voted to leave will manage to ensure that every subsequent EU crisis and jurisdictional pretension becomes a rallying point in a continuing campaign for Brexit, until a national majority demands that Britain renounce its EU membership. Other EU nations may well follow. The tide against the EU is also the tide of history.
14 May 2016
Published in The Spectator Australia