In or Out: will the UK become European once and for all?

Likely to become as much of an educational exercise as it will be a forum for debate, the UK’s four month-long campaign culminating on 23 June 2016 in the ‘in-out’ referendum on its membership of the European Union, has quickly taken on the character of a fact-twisting exercise: will ‘Brexit’ – withdrawal from the EU – lead to the loss of 3m jobs? Does the UK’s EU membership cost the country £50bn, £20bn or £7bn a year? Will the deal struck by David Cameron on 19 February after 30 hours of negotiations in Brussels, be deemed worthless by writ of the European Court of Justice (‘ECJ’)? Will Britain ‘regain’ its sovereignty if the UK leaves the EU? Will UK GDP fall by a predicted 1%-3% if the country ‘goes it alone’?

The uncertainty which has followed the long-awaited public emergence of division within the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, has already manifested in stark ways: at $1.39, the pound is now at its weakest since 2009.

But the uncertainty over jobs, trade and economic trends is matched by other, far-from calculable factors. Chief among these are the complexion and mood of the UK itself.

The decision to hold a referendum on EU membership is symptomatic of a broader – some might say deeper – uncertainty at the heart of British political life. Proof of such can be expected to emerge starkly in the coming months, as the ‘inners’ and the ‘outers’ trade blows, strike poses and leverage the debate as a means of positioning themselves advantageously as they anticipate the shape of the post-referendum landscape.

With the issue of sovereignty – that of Westminster over Brussels – placed very much at the heart of the ‘outers’ campaign, it is an irony that a referendum is being held at all: it is within the power of the Westminster parliament to initiate and implement a withdrawal from the EU, simply by voting to repeal the legislation upon which UK membership is predicated. But with declared MPs currently split 500-135 in favour of remaining in the EU, and the UK population split by a far closer 46%-38% in favour, it is perhaps unsurprising that the ‘outers’ in Parliament prefer to seek public support for a move a majority of MPs are likely to vote against.

It is illustrative of the deeper political uncertainties now emerging, however, that both major UK party leaders are – in their different ways – not ultimately committed to the ‘in’ cause for which they both are fighting: long a serious doubter about the Brussels ‘gravy train’ and its supporting bureaucracy, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is toeing his Party’s line by supporting EU membership. David Cameron meanwhile continues to be seen as something of a ‘eurosceptic’, not least by some of those within his own Party whose ‘in’ campaign he is leading.

Notable in the arguments being put by those favouring the status quo – that of remaining in the EU – is the similarity with the arguments favouring the status quo made in advance of the referendum on Scottish independence held on 18 September 2014. Characterising both is the prospect of fear, of the ‘abyss’, of a ‘leap into the unknown’.

It is striking that as with the ‘no’ campaign against the independence of Scotland, the central argument favouring the UK’s retention of EU membership is that the alternative would be so fraught with uncertainty that it does not bear consideration; just as the ‘UK’ with Scotland was rarely – if ever – portrayed as a success story which should be cherished, so – David Cameron has made clear – Brussels is not a place to be “loved”.

It is against this background of ambiguity even among those fighting to keep the UK as part of the EU, that one thing is nevertheless certain: by 23 June 2016 the British public will undoubtedly be better-informed about ‘what the EU does for us’ – or doesn’t do – than has been the case ever since the country joined in 1973.

Many myths are likely to be ‘busted’ in the process. Which are likely to be the most potent? Among them will be the myth that 60% of UK laws emanate from Brussels, when in fact it is precisely 13.2%, alongside many rules and regulations governing everything from food labelling to student exchange agreements. Another is likely to be the assertion that the UK contributes around £20bn – some even assert it is £50bn – annually to the EU budget when the combination of the UK’s ‘rebate’ and its receipt of EU project funds leave the net figure closer to £7bn, or £240 per person per annum. A third will be that to ‘leave’ will mean the UK will ‘have control of its borders’ in the face of the current migrant crisis – a control it in fact already has, by not being party to the Schengen arrangement.

With ‘inners’ yet to convince Britain’s many doubters that EU membership as innately good, positive and “lovable”, and ‘outers’ yet to prove that a ‘sovereign’, ‘red tape-free’ land which – despite their stated preference for the UK to remain in the EU – will establish lucrative bilateral trade deals with India, China, the US and others and can flourish outside the bloc, the coming four months will be highly-charged.

But unlike the issues which determined the outcome of the Scottish referendum, it can be expected that the accumulation of accurate knowledge rather than expressions of pure political conviction will emerge as decisive on 23 June.

It is fair to say that most Britons have little idea about what the EU and its constituent institutions actually do – a fault of the EU, which has been largely ineffective in explaining itself to the British public. A consequence: most Britons are unlikely to be able to name their own MEP, and are thus under the impression that the EU comprises wholly unelected bureaucrats, even while every UK voter is democratically represented at the European Parliament.

When asked, meanwhile, how they would define the ‘sovereignty’ which has now – rather suddenly – become a passionate preoccupation, many Britons would cite economic decision-making, foreign policy and the right to defend themselves militarily, as the three pillars of such. Most would also be at loss to reconcile such a definition with the fact that the EU has no influence whatsoever in any of these areas as regards the UK.

Against this background of uncertainty and misconception, the education of the British public is now underway. Determining the result of the June referendum will be the readiness of voters to learn about what they do not know, set aside prejudices fostered by a largely anti-EU popular media, and acknowledge that on balance the EU is more benign than it is predatory…and that the availability of cheap flights to the sun has as much to do with EU deregulation as it does with the ambitions of aviation buccaneers.