The strange battle over Brexit

Timing of referendum is risky because Brexit is but one of four fractures that put future of European Union at risk.

British Prime Minister David Cameron at the EU Council headquarters during the EU leaders' summit addressing the talks about the so-called Brexit and the migrants crisis, in Brussels, last February.


2016/03/11 Issue: 47 Page: 17


The Arab Weekly
Francis Ghilès



Barcelona - When viewed through the prism of Britain’s history, the country’s lack of emotional engagement with Europe, which puzzles many on the continent, is quite understandable. It has not been invaded for close on a millennium and has enjoyed a be­nign experience of self-government since the 17th century.

This explains why it is able to judge supranational experiments by their merits not as steps to a cer­tain “manifest” destiny. Contrary to many countries across the channel, such as Germany and Spain, Britain is not running away from its past.

That said, the timing of its great democratic consultations on Europe is unfortunate. When voters were consulted in 1975, two years after Britain joined the European Eco­nomic Community, they could not have guessed what the club’s ambi­tions nor who its future members would be.

A vote after the Single European Act was adopted would have made sense. Next June’s vote is running ahead of history. Were it just a ver­dict on the past three decades of membership the only reasonable conclusion would be that Britain is richer today than it was in 1985. Con­trary to what the Brexit supporters argue, membership of the European Union cannot have been a disaster.

By the same token, nobody knows what the future holds. If integration gets tighter and the eurozone gains the characteristics of a country, then Britain would be in an invidious po­sition of being forced to respect rules made elsewhere. Were the European Union to unwind or disintegrate, the consequences for Britain could be equally severe. A British exit from Europe could “explode” the Euro­pean Union.

The timing of the referendum is risky because Brexit is but one of four fractures that put the future of the European Union at risk. West Eu­ropean countries have discovered, to their dismay, that some East Europe­an countries, which they gave plenty of cash to modernise their econo­mies after the fall of communism, are refusing to share the burden on refugees. The populism of the Hun­garian prime minister is hardly new but the behaviour of Poland’s new government is making life uncom­fortable for German Chancellor An­gela Merkel.

The second line of fracture is the euro and it runs north-south. The Greek position is as untenable today as it was nine months ago. Italy’s banks are under pressure and Spain has paid a heavy price in lost jobs and lower wages for the austerity policies Germany has insisted upon across the continent.

The third line of fracture con­cerns the refugees — Greece cannot carry the burden of hosting so many refugees and if Italy were to be en­gulfed by a new wave of refugees, the Schengen system of passport-free travel could quickly shrink to France, Germany and the Benelux countries.

A key question remains unan­swered: Why has the European Un­ion done nothing to tackle the traf­fickers who collected an estimated $2 billion 2015? How is it that so many refugees seem to land on Eu­rope’s shores with euros on them?

A Europe in permanent crisis or disintegrating is hardly good news for southern rim Mediterranean countries because it focuses discus­sions between countries that border it on security.

It also reinforces authoritarian regimes in the south where Tuni­sia survives as the sole successful democratic experiment five years af­ter the Arab revolts began. Anaemic economic growth in many European countries does little to encourage trade or investment with its south­ern partners.

By the same token, terrorism in Tunisia and Egypt has cost both countries a large portion of their re­ceipts from tourism. Morocco alone has benefited from its more stable environment.

North Africa has only figured on the British radar since the early 2000s. Before that it was viewed in London as a French preserve. In 2012 North Africa became a separate department in the Foreign and Com­monwealth Office in London. The United Kingdom has a military atta­ché in Tunis where the embassy also houses the UK embassy to Libya. The terrorist attack against the gas field of Tigentourine in south-eastern Algeria three years ago brought the first visit by a British prime minister to Algeria since that country became independent in 1962. In Algiers, the recently reopened British council is swamped with requests to learn English. Shell and BP are active in Algeria. Brexit would hardly weaken such links as close cooperation in military and intelligence matters be­tween European and North African countries would survive.

In the House of Commons, De­fence Minister Michael Fallon an­nounced that Britain had agreed with Tunisia to deploy 20 British military instructors to help counter illegal cross-border movement from Libya. This is the second phase of an ongoing process — the first military agreement between Britain and a democratically elected Arab coun­try. Military cooperation between a democracy is easier than with an au­thoritarian system in which there is no such control.

For Tunisians, broadening cooper­ation on such matters outside their traditional relations with France and the United States to include Britain, whose geostrategic view is broader than that of most European capitals, is all benefit.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson has subordinated the future of Brit­ain in the European Union to his own self-interest and career plans, not to those of the city he governs, which stands to lose a lot from Brexit.

Comparing himself to Winston Churchill, Johnson argues he will end up on the right side of history, which is preposterous. The great war-time prime minister did not come out against Adolf Hitler in the 1930s for reasons of personal ambi­tion but because he saw the threat the German fuhrer’s ambitions posed to democracies — Britain, France and other countries in Eu­rope.

The Tory party has boasted great statesmen over the generations, none more so than Viscount Palm­erston, who was foreign secretary three times and twice prime min­ister in the 19th century. It was he who said, in one of the most famous quotes in Britain’s history: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”

It is in Britain’s interest to stay in Europe; in the European Union’s to have Britain remain as a member, in the broader interest of Mediterra­nean countries to see the only coun­try in Europe, with France, that has nuclear weapons and a well-trained army remain.


Francis Ghilès is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.


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